INDIANAPOLIS — In the end, the Indiana-Rutgers game could be classified as a buddy movie – Ali and Grace.
Ali Patberg “19 points” delivered haymakers like Muhammad Ali, and Grace Berger “17 points” was Amazing Grace, as she usually is.
That duo propelled the Hoosiers to one of their most meaningful wins of the season Thursday afternoon, opening the Big Ten tournament at Gainbridge Fieldhouse by besting Rutgers 66-54.
The victory gave IU a 20-7 record and set up a next-round match today against 21-7 Maryland.
Maryland is currently ranked 11th in the country, and IU is tied for 14th. The teams split two games during the regular season.
“I just thought our kids were terrific, especially in the second half,” IU coach Teri Moren, a Seymour native, said of the Rutgers game.
The Hoosiers led 32-26 at halftime but pulled away with superior defense, better shooting and the double-whammy jump-shooting Patberg from long range and Berger from mid-range. Each of the veteran players who helped IU reach the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament last year recorded six assists apiece. Moren called that “Sharing the sugar.”
Rutgers (11-20) advanced to this game by crushing Penn State 75-50 on Wednesday, but the Scarlet Knights could not hit enough shots versus IU. Sayawni Lassiter with 12 points was Rutgers’ only double-figure scorer.
“They played a heck of a basketball game,” Rutgers coach Tim Eatman said. “We probably missed 60% of our shots in the lane. I thought our kids fought hard.”
Indiana entered this tournament 1-4 over its final regular season stretch, dropping from a high Associated Press national ranking of fifth.
A week ago, the Hoosiers fell to Maryland in College Park 67-64. Moren gave the team three days off and felt it benefited from the respite.
“I thought a few days in Bloomington really served us well,” Moren said.
No one more than center Mackenzie Holmes, who scored 11 points Thursday. Holmes incurred a knee injury in mid-January, around the same time the team was forced into a 15-day COVID-19 quarantine and did not play for a month.
Holmes has been inching her way back into form. Now, she must play back-to-back games.
“I think she’ll be fine,” Moren said. “She’s a young kid. She knows what’s at stake for our team.”
The Hoosiers basically led all the way, 16-10 after one quarter and 48-37 after three. They played without backup Kiandra Browne, sidelined by a reaggravated hip injury.
They also had to overcome forward Aleksa Gulbe’s early and constant foul trouble. She did eventually foul out.
However, the fourth quarter belonged to IU. Guard Nicole Cardano-Hillary shined during that 10 minutes. Over one stretch, she ripped off seven straight Indiana points and twice stole the ball at half-court on her way to five thefts for the game.
“Nicole was terrific today,” Moren said. “She’s a problem (defensively). She’s disruptive.”
Patberg was a problem for Rutgers the entire game nailing five 3-pointers. Going back to high school play and throughout college, the Columbus native has had a solid friendship with the baskets in this building.
“I love playing here,” Patberg said. “We gained a lot of confidence tonight. We’re clicking on offense and defense.”
Berger, named first-team all-Big Ten earlier in the week, has been clicking all season.
She really plays anywhere on the floor when asked, but on display Thursday, as it often is, was her expertise with the 12- to 15-foot jump shot.
“When I’m out there, I’m just doing everything I can to win,” Berger said.
The Hoosiers topped Maryland 70-63 in overtime Jan. 2 in Bloomington and then lost the rematch.
“I think it’s a great advantage for us,” Moren said of playing on a neutral court, though it is not far from home. “We know we can beat them.”
This has been a season of great expectations and major goals for the Hoosiers. They want to excel in this event, earn homecourt seeding for the NCAAs and win a national crown.
“We’re playing for a lot,” Patberg said.