IU women’s hoops primed for conference tournament

Up until a couple of weeks ago, the Indiana University women’s basketball team looked as if it could beat everyone in the country. Then the Hoosiers finished the regular season 1-4, raising the question of if they can beat anyone.

Now they find out. IU opens Big Ten tournament play today at approximately 2 p.m. at Gainbridge Fieldhouse, as it seeks to regroup, regain its mojo and demonstrate its near-season-long run in the Associated Press top 10 was deserved.

Indiana, 19-7, meets Rutgers, 11-19, a 75-50 victor over Penn State, as it pursues its goal of capturing the league’s post-season tournament and securing a high seeding for the NCAA tournament.

Last year the Hoosiers reached an all-time program-best slot in the Elite Eight and with just about the entire team returning they were primed for an even better run this March. Until things got shaky.

“We’re ready,” said senior guard Nicole Cardano-Hillary. “I have faith we’ll give it our all.”

No one questions that, but will giving it their all be enough in a minefield of a league that has five teams in the national rankings? Despite its slump, IU maintained a tie for 14th in the ratings this week and also the right to host a home game in the big tourney.

Not so long ago, IU was ranked fifth nationally, but now Michigan (10th), Maryland (11th), Iowa (12th) and Ohio State (13th) are just ahead among league foes.

Still, when it came to all-conference post-season honors, Indiana was richly rewarded.

Junior Grace Berger, who averaged 16.4 points, 6 rebounds and 4.8 assists, was chosen for the first team, and for the second time. Mackenzie Holmes, who was the team’s leading scorer and rebounder until she missed a month of play with a knee injury, and Aleksa Gulbe, were selected for the second team Cardano-Hillary was chosen for the second team by coaches and made the league’s all-defensive team. Ali Patberg received honorable mention honors.

The notable thing about this quintet is that all of them average in double figures and that kind of balance and firepower will be necessary to succeed in the Big Ten showdown, as well as stingy defense.

IU and Rutgers did not meet during the regular season. IU dealt with a 15-day quarantine layoff due to the COVID-19 virus. Not all games were made up. Moren said Rutgers seems to be peaking at the right time and getting better the longer the season lasts.

Moren seems to be embracing amnesia over her own team’s recent faltering that included two losses to Iowa, and one each to Nebraska and Maryland.

“It was a tough stretch,” Moren said. “We’re trying to put that in the rearview mirror.”

Holmes, who averaged 16.1 ppg., down slightly since returning, has been trying to work her way back into 100 percent playing shape. That could define how well the Hoosiers fare.

“Mack is finally feeling a little bit like herself,” Moren said.

To succeed in the Big Ten tournament, playing on, day by day, the Hoosiers must limit their turnovers (the goal is always 11 or fewer), play tight defense and take good shots.

Cardano-Hillary is very much a pest covering other teams’ guards, though she would not admit it Wednesday, saying if she frustrates opponents it is up to them to say.

Moren considers the Big Ten to be the toughest league in the land and to seize a title, Berger, Holmes, Cardano-Hillary, Gulbe, Patberg, and the main subs, Chloe Moore-McNeil and Kiandra Browne, will have to be sharp.

“All of them are going to have to be really good,” Moren said.

Lew Freedman is a sports writer for The Tribune. Send comments to [email protected]