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Hosting NCAA Tournament games the next step for IU women's program

The scoreboard at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall is lit up for the NCAA Tournament games this weekend.

(Pat Beane/WTIU)

Making the NCAA Tournament has become a regular occurrence for the IU women’s basketball team.

But, for the first time ever, the Hoosiers will be hosting opening round games at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall on Saturday and Monday.

Indiana returned all five starters from last year’s team that reached the Elite Eight for the first time in school history, so success this year was not unexpected.

The Hoosiers started the season ranked No. 8 in the nation and reached as high as No. 4 before a late season slump left them 11th in the final Associated Press poll.

“When we arrived eight years ago, this is really what we envisioned - every year to take another step,” Indiana head coach Teri Moren said.

Moren, who took over the program in 2014, has led the Hoosiers to the postseason each of the past seven seasons except for 2020, when it was canceled due to COVID-19. That includes a WNIT title in 2018.

This year, the Hoosiers earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament and the right to host first and second round games this weekend.

Indiana will play No. 14 seed Charlotte in Saturday’s first game at 1:30 p.m. No. 6 seed Kentucky and No. 11 seed Princeton meet in the second game, with the winners playing Monday for a chance to advance to the Sweet 16.

“Our field is really good,” Moren said. “Pricenton’s a really good team. Obviously, Kentucky’s a really good team. And so first things first for us, we’re going to focus on Charlotte and what we have to do to get to the next round.”

Monday’s game will likely be a rematch between Indiana and Kentucky. The Hoosiers beat the then-No. 13 ranked Wildcats, 88-67, on Nov. 14 at Assembly Hall.

But Moren won’t let the Hoosiers look that far ahead.

“It’s a brand new tournament and seeding doesn’t matter,” Moren said. “If you were paying attention to what was happening on the men’s side, that obviously was true with some of the higher seeds getting beat."

“So, we don’t worry about that. Right now, we’re just worried about the Charlotte 49ers.”

“We know they’re a very good team,” senior guard Grace Berger said. “They run a lot of good sets, and they have a lot of Power 5 transfers, so they’ve been here before. They’re not scared to play us.”

Indiana likely would have hosted the first two rounds last year, but due to COVID-19, the entire tournament was played in San Antonio.

There, the Hoosiers came within a game of reaching the Final Four. Making that deep of a run in the tournament was not a learning experience.

“That feeling has been driving us in the offseason, this season,” guard Ali Patberg said. “But we also remember losing in the Elite Eight, too, so just a big feel of the stage that we were on. We know what that feels like.”

Patberg is technically in her seventh season of college basketball. She missed two seasons with injuries, sat out a season because of NCAA transfer rules and was granted an extra season because of the pandemic.

One of the reasons she came back for the extra season was a chance to build on last year.

“That’s, you know, why we play all season,” she said. “Obviously, to work to get into the NCAA Tournament, but also, you know, we wanted to host, and that was a goal of ours.”

It’s been a team effort for the Hoosiers. All five starters average double figures in scoring, led by Berger’s 16.3 points a game. Center Makenzie Holmes averaged 15.5 points and a team-best seven rebounds a game, but an injury to her late in the season threatened to derail the season.

The Hoosiers were 12-and-2 in mid-January when Holmes had surgery on her left knee and missed the next eight games. When she returned, the Hoosiers struggled to regain their form and lost four of their final five games.

“I think Mack being out was like this hurdle that we had to get over,” guard Nicole Cardano-Hillary. “But I also think it showed people how important everyone else on this team is, even the bench coming in.”

However, IU came alive in the Big Ten tournament, winning three games and reaching the championship before falling to Iowa.

That helped remind the Hoosiers of just how good they were.

“I think it was good in the sense that we beat several of the top teams in the country, top 15, top 10 teams,” Berger said. “So, we certainly proved to ourselves – not that we didn’t already know, but we did go on a little bit of a losing streak to the end the year.

“So, I think just proving to ourselves that we belong in that conversation with those teams and that we can compete with anybody in the country.”

Said Holmes: “We battled that adversity and those hard times, and we’re still a three seed and hosting, and we get another chance to play in Assembly Hall. I think that’s a major blessing, and I’m super happy about that.”

As are the fans who get to see the Hoosiers at home at least one more time.

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