WNIT wrap: Indiana 66, Northwestern 65

WHAT HAPPENED: Simone Deloach scored off a feed from Tabitha Gerardot with 11 seconds left in Thursday’s round-of-16 game against Northwestern, lifting the Hoosiers to a 66-65 victory before an announced 3,065 at Assembly Hall. Deloach’s basket gave IU its first lead of the night, sealing a round-of-eight matchup at South Dakota State on Sunday at 3 p.m. Larryn Brooks scored a game-high 27 points, including five 3-pointers, while Alexis Gassion and Lyndsay Leikem added 10 points for Indiana. The Hoosiers trailed until their final possession, when they emerged from a timeout and found the basket in the waning moments. Indiana worked the ball around the halfcourt, with Gassion driving and dishing to Gerardot on the wing. Gerardot accepted a pass and cut toward the elbow, where she was picked up by two defenders, drawing attention from Deloach, who took the pass and laid the ball in for the win.

“It was a blur,” Deloach said.

Indiana has now earned 21 victories, tying the program record for most wins in a season. For most of the night, it didn’t appear that such a feat would be possible.

WHO MADE IT HAPPEN: As is often the case in Hoosier victories this season, Brooks carried IU. In the process she set a few more program records. Brooks, Indiana’s all-time freshman scoring leader, moved into seventh place on the program’s single-season scoring list with 538 points. Her four assists allowed Brooks to set the freshman record for assists in a season with 150. She also set the program’s freshman record for 3-pointers in a season with 65. Thursday was her 10th game of the season with 20 or more points. Most importantly, nine of her points came in the final four minutes to help IU secure the win.

KEY STAT: 11 3-pointers. When the Hoosiers missed each of their first seven deep balls to start the night, it looked as if this one would be a struggle. For much of the night, it was. Indiana relies on 3s more than most teams. But IU finally got those shots to fall late in the first half and again in the second half. It seemed that the Hoosiers trailed by double digits — or eight or nine points — for most of the night. But they hit four 3-balls in the final 12 minutes to not only help keep them in it, but overtake Northwestern.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: “We picked a great time to lead.”
— IU coach Curt Miller on Indiana grabbing its first lead of the night on its final shot.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN: It had barely been 15 minutes since the game ended when Curt Miller walked into the Assembly Hall press room, took his seat on the dais, smiled and let out a big sigh. As they missed shots, dropped the ball and watched Northwestern hold a steady two-plus possession lead for nearly the entire night, Miller asked his group to believe. They either did that, or their season ended. They chose the former.

In doing so, this team — of all IU teams — was able to do something only four other groups of Hoosiers have been able to do.

They won their 21st game of the season.

They created an opportunity to win another on Sunday at 3 at South Dakota State.

They showed what great heights are reachable when a group of people buy into a common goal.

Most importantly, they did it against a conference rival. Miller’s first two teams at Indiana have enjoyed enormous success in the non-conference arena. Big Ten play is a different animal. After earning back-to-back wins against Belmont and Marquette to start the WNIT, a rematch with Northwestern brought forth a bit of pause for some Hoosiers. Miller admitted as much in the days leading into Thursday’s round-of-16 game.

And for much of the night, it appeared that this was would be the final contest in a season that will be remembered as nothing but an unmitigated success. Big Ten opponent or not, Indiana was not about to let that happen.

“They looked at me and shook their head and talked positively in huddles,” Miller said. “We’re growing up before everyone’s eyes.”

Frankly, I’m not sure that anyone expected Indiana to win more than a game or two in this tournament. To get this far, IU has beaten some of the kinds of teams it needs to beat to continue taking the next step. The Hoosiers beat a pesky Belmont squad. They knocked down a tall and tough Marquette team. They beat a Big Ten bully with one of the best underclass rosters in the league.

It’s all gravy from here, as it has been for the last week. But there’s no mistaking just how important and unforgettable this team has become to the acceleration of Miller’s building process.

They’ve even begun to rope in more than a cult following. For Thursday’s game, IU students packed nearly all of the bleachers behind the South basket. There wasn’t always something to cheer about — especially early — but the college kids stayed, waited and hoped for the best.

When Maggie Lyon’s last-second shot from the baseline missed the mark, sealing Indiana’s third-round victory, a smattering of students rushed onto the court to meet the team and jump and scream along with them.

This is only the second chapter of the story under Miller.

Can you imagine what comes next.

He can. They all can.

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