Indiana women’s basketball holding serve with Holmes out

BLOOMINGTON — The Indiana women’s basketball team hoped for the perfect season.

Instead, the Hoosiers are living the perfect storm. And a real live storm was involved, too.

On Sunday afternoon, the Hoosiers polished off rival Purdue 64-57 in a lively Assembly Hall atmosphere that completed an adventurous week. It was a week begun with IU ranked fifth in the nation in The Associated Press poll, a week ended with the team going 2-1 in games.

But it also was part of a month with IU living through more subplots than the entire U.S. Winter Olympic team. Indiana has been without leading scorer and rebounder Mackenzie Holmes, who underwent a knee “procedure,” though she is not on crutches.

The entire team went into COVID-19 protocols, which translates to quarantine, which translates to some people being sick. Three Big Ten games were missed.

Last Monday, the Hoosiers lost to highly ranked Michigan and lost first place in the league. Then three days later, they defeated Minnesota while a major snow and ice storm caused the game to be played ostensibly with no fans, though 15 to 20 showed up. It was a return to yesteryear, last year, when no spectators were allowed in because of the coronavirus.

So IU sits at 16-3 and now seventh in Monday’s new poll. The 65-50 loss to Michigan after the COVID layoff was predictable. The Wolverines are good, now 20-2, and the win wrestled first place in the standings from IU and moved them up to fourth nationwide.

“We’re not a program that makes excuses, but I do think we looked like a team that had been off for a couple weeks and looked really rusty and had no real rhythm…,” coach Teri Moren said.

The Hoosiers regained some of their style and form in an 80-70 victory over Minnesota a few days later that practically no one saw. A winter storm buried Bloomington in snow, and ice made the roads more treacherous than the Indy 500 course, so the administration told fans not to come. A couple of handfuls of bold students didn’t get the word apparently and trekked over from other parts of campus.

Aleksa Gulbe, a 6-foot-3 forward, scored a career-high 28 points, just the type of performance the Hoosiers needed with the continuing absence of Holmes and her 18 points per game.

By then, the Hoosiers were starting to look more like themselves, as they did again against Purdue on Sunday.

This was the seventh time in a row IU bested their rivals, and the crowd was the ultimate contrast to the Minnesota game.

Attendance was 7,891, the fifth largest in IU women’s basketball history — and it looked like more.

Backup Chloe Moore-McNeil, who scored 11 points with 10 rebounds, mentally compared the sounds of silence versus Minnesota and the sounds of noise against Purdue.

“I think we were really grateful to have a big crowd today,” she said.

Guard Nicole Cardano-Hillary, who had a game-high 19 points in 40 minutes, said the last few weeks have been trying.

“There has been adversity,” she said. “We don’t back down from the challenges.”

They have come in waves in a season that was welcomed with the goal of being the best-ever for the Hoosiers. IU was coming off an NCAA tournament Elite Eight performance with all key players back.

The team was structured for another deep run but was not structured to withstand a major personnel loss as in Holmes. Indiana has great talent but little depth, and the illustration of how good the Hoosiers can be is that the only losses have been to nationally ranked squads, No. 2 Stanford, No. 5 North Carolina State and Michigan.

This team is focused and includes grit as one of its skill sets the way some teams count on outside shooting. Moren, the Seymour native who played for Purdue, recognizes the difference between the Hoosiers with Holmes and without her.

“We’re really going to have to be laser sharp on the defensive end,” Moren said.

IU can still beat most teams, but minus Holmes just not all of the best teams.

With Holmes in one piece, Grace Berger (17 points against Purdue), Ali Patberg, Gulbe, Cardano-Hillary, the increasingly important Moore-McNeil and role-playing Kiandra Browne, Indiana has the potential for greatness.

Fans are glimpsing the promise and embracing it, speaking loudly with their presence.