COMMENTARY: IU women make the most of opportunity

Windows of opportunity can be scarce and fleeting.

Fail to clamber through, and they’ll close in a heartbeat.

March of 2020 might have felt like one of those moments for Indiana women’s basketball, as a record-setting regular season saw the postseason window slammed shut before the NCAA Tournament could even hold a selection show, let alone any games.

There was a distinct possibility the Hoosiers would be forever left to play a game of what if.

Instead of sulking, they determined that if given the chance, they would make up for lost time. On Wednesday night at 6:57 p.m., Indiana stepped through the latest window of opportunity and into the record books, becoming the first team in program history to advance past the second round of the NCAA Tournament, putting it on par with the 1973 AIAW Final Four team, which came nine years before the NCAA Tournament came into existence in the women’s game.

“There’s no question we were bitterly disappointed, especially for Brenna Wise, on March 11 last year when things were shut down,” said IU coach Teri Moren postgame, looking like she just finished a lap in the pool after a raucous locker room celebration focused on spraying her with water bottles. “This was our expectation, to get in last year’s tournament and make a deep run. I think that’s what has fueled this group the entire season, the entire year.”

Few programs know better than Indiana how fleeting success can be and how much to appreciate it when it comes.

The Hoosiers have spent much of their 49-year history residing in a windowless basement.

There were shafts of light in those fledgling years, highlighted by the Final Four trip that remains a gold standard of team accomplishments.

The Hoosiers poked their head out of the window in the early 1980s, winning their lone Big Ten regular-season championship in 1983 and reaching the round of 16 with a win over Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament, which was just a 32-team event at the time.

Back-to-back NCAA trips in 1994-95 parted the curtains once more, and Indiana caught lightning in a bottle in 2002 by winning the Big Ten Tournament.

It would be another 14 years before the Hoosiers returned to the Big Dance, making their first appearance under Moren and winning a game over traditional SEC power Georgia.

Slowly but surely the window began to open wider and wider with a WNIT Championship in 2018 followed by a return to NCAA play in 2019 and another first-round win before exiting.

Indiana was poised to take another step forward in 2020 before everything was put on hold.

In a normal season, it takes an inordinate amount of focus and discipline to achieve success. To do so in the midst of a pandemic is to reach another level, something IU has done without a single COVID case.

“That says a lot about those players and how important and how special this season was going to be for this group,” Moren said. “Really proud of them for a lot of reasons, especially what we’ve done here the last few days, but I’m most impressed and most proud of how they’ve handled themselves, carried themselves and their seriousness of coming in the gym every day and getting a little bit better.”

It is also evidence of just how much the Hoosiers have bought into the culture and direction of the program.

As a result, the Hoosiers aren’t just opening windows but rewriting the record book.

They’ve now won 20 or more games in six consecutive seasons and held two opponents under 50 points in a single postseason for the first time.

Individually, Mackenzie Holmes set a new mark for blocked shots in an NCAA game with five against VCU and now also is tied for second place after three more against Belmont, while Aleksa Gulbe grabbed 15 rebounds to surpass Denise Jackson’s 12 in the 1983 NCAA Tournament.

And most of all, the Hoosiers have won two NCAA games for the first time.

“Any time you’re the first team to do stuff in your program, it’s a big deal,” IU junior Grace Berger said. “That’s why we came to Indiana, why we all came to Indiana and believed in Coach and her vision for the program.”

Before the tournament started, Moren didn’t want to put pressure on her team to reach a certain round or win a certain number of games in order to call the season a success. With a record number of regular-season Big Ten wins and the program’s highest-ever rankings in the polls, it was already a success.

But for a program trying to create the history it lacked, Indiana needed to reach a Sweet 16, to set the bar a little higher and the spotlight a little brighter.

Perhaps it was only fitting then that Moren would quote an IU coach in her postgame press conference.

“It’s amazing what can happen when no one cares who gets the credit,” she said. “That’s another Hoosier who said that a long time ago. This is what makes this team so special, they just don’t care how we win, who scores, who’s going to guard, who’s going to get the rebound, who’s going to fill the stat sheet with assists. It hasn’t mattered, and for that, I”m extremely not just grateful to be their coach but just proud in a difficult, challenging season of how they’ve managed to stay together and play some really good basketball.”

It will be the 50th anniversary of Bob Knight’s hiring at Indiana on Saturday when the Hoosiers try to play giant-killer against top-seeded North Carolina State. And in that spirit, IU would like to make the most of another window of opportunity.

“We’re really excited, that’s an understatement, but we also know we’re not done yet,” Berger said, “and we’re excited to come out and play this weekend. “

One comment

  1. I noticed ABC is televising a couple Ladies tournament games this Saturday….I get it about all the differences in men vs Ladies basketball…However, if Ladies basketball was promoted more it may become viewed on a much larger scale….to prove this I can think of many examples regarding all the garbage nonsense on television that is viewed simply because it is promoted to the point of memorizing and brainwashing into viewership drama. A marketing machine as in tv can make Ladies college basketball so much bigger and popular. There are a lot of young girls and their families involved in girls basketball and other sports in this country. IU Ladies had 13,000+ for NIT championship game and 6,000+ at 2020 OHIO STATE game are a couple examples. Winning the right way does that. I think there is much room for growth if marketed….there is a paradigm of opportunities in this area.

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