WNIT wrap: Indiana 48, Belmont 47

WHAT HAPPENED: Indiana held off a late Belmont rally to secure a 48-47 victory in the first round of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament Thursday at Assembly Hall. The win sends the Hoosiers into a second-round matchup Saturday, when they host Marquette in Bloomington at 7 p.m. Lyndsay Leikem and Larryn Brooks each scored 11 to lead Indiana. Simone Deloach added 10 points and nine rebounds, Taylor Agler recorded nine points and Alexis Gassion finished with 10 rebounds and one big steal.

Gassion’s steal in the final second sealed the win for the Hoosiers, who snapped a three-game losing streak that spanned the last month’s worth of action. Indiana led by one with a minute to play, but wasted back-to-back possessions on poor shots from Brooks and Deloach. The Bruins went for the lead with an open corner 3, but it banked off the rim and into the arms of Gassion with nine seconds left. Belmont had to foul five times in a short period to send Indiana to the line, where Nicole Bell missed the front end of the bonus with five seconds left. Jordyn Luffman, who led Belmont with a double-double of 15 points and 10 rebounds, attempted to race the length of the floor for a final, game-winning shot, but bobbled the ball and lost it at midcourt. Gassion pounced on the ball with a second left and closed Indiana’s first postseason tournament victory since 2009.

WHO MADE IT HAPPEN: In a game this ugly, it’s difficult to deliver much credit to anyone. But Lyndsay Leikem was absolutely huge for Indiana in the second half. Nine of her 11 points came in the final half when Leikem not only gave Indiana quality minutes, but a presence on the perimeter. Leikem took over on back-to-back possessions, beginning with a defensive rebound. After IU raced upcourt, Leikem hit a 3-ball — Indiana’s third and final of the night. She followed with a couple nice moves that led to a big drive ending in a layup. It all helped the Hoosiers on the way to a 14-point lead, their largest of the night, midway through the second half.

Leikem finished by shooting 5-for-8 from the floor with one 3, two rebounds and two assists.

“She’s been shooting the ball tremendous in practice recently,” Miller said. “She’s that strech-4 that we like to play with. We have confidence to run plays for her on the perimeter. She’s better at penetration than you give her credit for. She had a big penetration basket in the second half. Offense was hard to come by, so when anyone made a shot it was a big deal. We rode her for more minutes in the second half and didn’t go back with Tabitha (Gerardot) late because of Lyndsay’s ability to make shots. Belmont went small and put pressure on Lyndsay. She was guarding (Jordyn) Luffman, who’s the best player on the floor, and it was a tough matchup down the stretch for Lyndsay. She tried to battle with her.”

KEY STAT: What’s amazing are all the stats that point to a Hoosier defeat. Indiana shot only 33.3 percent (21-for-63) from the field — its lowest shooting figure in a victory this season. The Hoosiers’ 20 percent (3-for-15) effort from 3-point range was also among their worst in a winning effort, but they shot a season-worst 11 percent from the perimeter in a win over Indiana State in November and 14 percent in a victory at IUPUI in December.

“If you were to tell me they’ll hit three 3s in a game, I’m gonna think we’re gonna win that game,” said Belmont coach Cameron Newbauer, brother of Indiana guard Andrea.

It took awhile, but Indiana managed to outrebound a smaller Belmont team, 43-38. 14 of those boards came on the offensive end for the Hoosiers, who struggled to get second-chance points (10).

Also — and this should not be overlooked — Taylor Agler played all 40 minutes while battling the flu. Miller said afterward that he didn’t want to let Agler sit on the bench and let her mind take over. She’s sick and she knew it. But Miller needed her, especially her defense, in the game.

“She’s been really under the weather with the flu the last 48 hours,” Miller said. “I just didn’t want to take her out. That’s when your head starts pounding and when you start to really realize you’re really sick. Probably, people think I’m crazy for playing a kid 40 minutes that is really under the weather, but I didn’t want her to sit and think how sick she was. She was chasing around their wings, who do a lot of running and I thought that was important to be out there and give us that defensive presence.”

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: “It’s huge to keep playing. I can’t thank the crowd enough. The crowd was amazing. We don’t earn the second home game without a great crowd. With spring break and no college students, professors, all those people out of town, I’m still really pleased with the turnout from our crowd. It’s all part of the growth for this program and putting them in this environment, so it’s a huge win — a huge win to be able to get to the second round. We’re now 6-0 against non-conference opponents that are in the postseason. We’re not quite where we want to be in the Big Ten, but we’re stepping up and winning a lot of non-conference games, winning games against non-conference teams in postseason play.”

MIKE’S “WHAT THE HECK?” MOMENT OF THE NIGHT: Once again, I started including this subsection at the beginning of the season knowing well that each game would not supply a “What the heck?” moment. Tonight wasn’t so much a “What the heck?” moment as it was a “Well, that’s cool.” moment. At the start of halftime, the program’s “Happy” music video was shown on the videoboard. It got plenty of scattered laughs and applause, but Curt Miller once again stole the show. With each appearance, Miller generated loud rounds of applause and cheers — especially during the scene where he’s dancing at midcourt while spinning a ball on his index finger. I actually tried that same move with the basketball in the office earlier this week. It took only one try before Dustin Dopirak kindly asked that I stop and take a seat. It’s harder than it looks.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN: I believe I predicted 15-16 wins, including four or five conference victories, before the season started. I thought that was enough, and it would’ve been. No one, not a single person, could complain about that kind of progression. That we’re talking about a second-round WNIT game — at Assembly Hall, no less — absolutely blows my mind. I can’t be the only one. This program produced a ton of bad basketball games last season because it had to. There was so little collective talent on last year’s team that it was hard (nearly impossible?) to win pretty. Really, it was Miller’s unofficial mantra that Indiana had to win ugly. They did.

And they still do.

What should be encouraging is that there are flashes of beauty — enough to take Indiana this far. The secret is out on Larryn Brooks. It has been since December. But every few games, someone else steps up. Alexis Gassion. Lyndsay Leikem. Taylor Agler. Simone Deloach. They’ve all had valuable production, let alone breakout games, since the non-conference run ended, and that means something. Of that collection, only Deloach will not return next season. It’s yet another sign pieces are in place.

Add additional pieces like Maura Muensterman, Tyra Buss, Amanda Cahill and Jess Walter, among others, and the Hoosiers should expect to continue trending upward.

Thursday was also a bad, bad game. You could forgive a young team for folding when shots — especially those within five feet — weren’t falling. And I still feel like Indiana did enough over its last few possessions to lose this game. I honestly think that if Belmont’s wide-open corner 3 falls through with nine seconds left, the Bruins win this game. So, there was some luck, or at least good fortune, involved, too.

But in a game that neither team played particularly well, Indiana did enough. The Hoosiers didn’t have a single standout performance, benefiting from a bevy of women doing enough at different times. For now, that’s acceptable. It’s good enough.

Whether it’s good enough to allow this team to see another round of postseason basketball remains to be seen. But there’s nothing to lose at this point. This season has been an unmitigated success. We’re talking Indiana women’s basketball in the third week of March.

And the best is yet to come.

Video above courtesy of IU Athletics