BLOOMINGTON — Call it the sisterhood of basketball.
Indiana University’s 87-78 victory over Iowa on Thursday night was a major game in the women’s basketball national picture with the Hoosiers solidifying first place in the Big Ten and defending their No. 2 national ranking against the No. 5 Hawkeyes.
But it also was more than that, a solidarity event energizing the campus with a record women’s hoops crowd of 13,046 in Assembly Hall, on a breast cancer (and all cancer) wear-pink awareness night while putting an exclamation point on 50 years of Title IX evolution.
Not revolution. That took place a half-century ago (and a reminder of the federal legislation ensuring equality for women in sports was flashed on the jumbotron). It was a this-is-where-we-are unification statement, the kind of night Teri Moren has dreamed of for nine years.
Moren, a star pupil of Seymour pioneer coach Donna Sullivan and then Hall of Famer Lin Dunn at Purdue, is now at the helm of a best-ever-start 23-1 IU team, a threat to capture its first Big Ten title in 40 years, one ranked the highest of any Hoosier team ever.
Moren says coaches “have the responsibility to grow the game” and the upward arrow of fan support is something she doesn’t take for granted.
“I hope this becomes the new normal for Indiana women’s basketball,” she said.
Simultaneously, the fan base is showing fresh appreciation for this team as if it is a new flavor of ice cream.
The Hoosiers are bonding with spectators. It was probably impossible to buy a pink handkerchief in Bloomington before this game.
The Hoosiers are a powerful public relations tool, led by self-effacing stars Grace Berger and Mackenzie Holmes, who know they deserve every ounce of credit and acclaim flowing their way, but do not lord it over anyone. Plus, now they are trying to cure cancer, too.
Berger always wears a pink headband and pink sneakers, but Thursday, all of the Hoosiers wore pink warm-up jerseys and pink sneakers. During player introductions, the five starters, Berger, Holmes, Yarden Garzon, Sydney Parrish and Chloe Moore-McNeil each escorted a woman who is a breast cancer survivor to mid-court.
Berger said if her partner offered encouragement, they were lost in the crowd’s howl, and satisfaction came in just seeing the fighters’ smiles.
The Hoosiers created more than 13,000 smiles. The game unfolded as anticipated, 19-19 after one quarter, 39-39 at the half.
Iowa (19-5) features star guard Caitlin Clark and center Monika Czinano. Clark scored 35 points but committed eight turnovers, too. Czinano was neutralized, fouling out with six points.
Clark was not impressed by the crowd size because Iowa draws that well all of the time, and almost a month in advance, it was announced the Feb. 26 rematch is sold out at 15,400-seat Carver-Hawkeye Arena. But she noted the energy in the building, hostile or not.
“I thought the crowd was tremendous,” Clark said. “That’s good for women’s basketball. That’s what it should be.”
Berger (26 points, nine rebounds, six assists) and Holmes (24 points) with a little help from their friends, Parrish (nine points) and Garzon and Sara Scalia (eight each), repelled Iowa’s fourth-quarter charges.
It was 62-62 with eight and a half minutes left. However, Berger commanded the floor with her ball-handling and playmaking while mixing in spinning drives to the basket and mid-range jumpers. She combined with Garzon, who otherwise had a frustrating night fouling out, but over a few minutes pumped in all her points.
Indiana lost twice to Iowa in the regular season and in the Big Ten tournament last year. The three losses rankled, and Berger was determined to fix that.
Moren said Berger was “not to be denied.” Berger said, “I really wanted to win. Any time you play a great team like that, it means more.”
This was a win to remember but not one to dwell on. The remaining regular-season schedule is a minefield for IU. The Hoosiers have 11 wins in a row and are 13-1 in the standings but have clinched nothing.
IU still plays No. 13 Ohio State on the road, Iowa again on the road, No. 12 Michigan at home. The Feb. 19 home game with rival Purdue is already sold out, a program first, so that will break the new Iowa game attendance mark.
The Big Ten has five teams in the top 13. Best league in the country, Moren has said for weeks. Her group, bound by toughness, she stresses, says bring ‘em on.
“We always tell them they’re built for this moment,” Moren said.
The Hoosiers are seeking to write history in pink.
Lew Freedman writes sports columns for The Tribune. Send comments to [email protected]