IU women look back on historic season

In an ideal world, the Indiana women’s basketball team would be preparing to make the first Sweet Sixteen appearance in school history this weekend.

With the outbreak of COVID-19, it is anything but an ideal world right now.

However, it was as close to an ideal season as one could hope for the Hoosiers, who set a school record with 24 wins despite the lack of a postseason tournament.

“We made history and we were expecting to win more games,” said IU coach Teri Moren, who spoke extensively to The Herald-Times earlier this week.

Indiana was also ranked in all 20 Associated Press Top 25 polls, peaking at a program-record 12th. The Hoosiers had been ranked just six times in their history prior to the season and never higher than No. 22, which meant the final ranking of No. 20 was also an all-time best.

In short, IU took yet another step up the ladder of success.

“Two things matter with the climb,” Moren said. “One, a lot of it has to do with my staff. They’re the best of the best, not just in how they recruit but how they connect and with skill development.

“Two, I just think this group of kids was very unique, led by two great human beings in Brenna Wise and Ali Patberg. They were just very connected. I’ve probably said this more than once, but one thing our staff didn’t do was go home and wonder what was being communicated in the locker room.”

That aspect was crucial for a team that had something rare for IU women’s basketball — expectations. Those were born of a WNIT championship in 2018, followed by winning an NCAA Tournament game in 2019 and bowing out with a competitive effort against an elite Oregon team.

“Expectations were high, but when you have competitors like we do, be it Grace Berger and her work over the summer or Brenna and Ali establishing themselves as leaders, it’s easier,” Moren said.

Still, it wasn’t as easy as some might have thought. Bendu Yeaney never fully recovered from the Achilles injury she suffered in the final game last March and eventually transferred, Jaelynn Penn battled through plantar fasciitis in both feet, freshman Shaila Beeler struggled to stay healthy and eventually transferred and redshirt freshman Chanel Wilson saw her first sustained game action in nearly three years after a pair of ACL injuries.

“There were a lot of moving parts inside our season,” Moren admitted. “Leadership, give credit for that to Brenna and Ali, because there were some unique things throughout the season with the departures of some kids, trying to get Chanel where she needed to be and Jaelynn and all of that. It goes back to having a great staff that communicates well, but sometimes when there is adversity and things that you don’t expect, you have to lean back on your leaders in the locker room, the guys who have the attention of their team. We wouldn’t have gotten through those moments without them.”

That ability for the team to stay together, aided by the bonding of an early-season trip to the Virgin Islands and signature upset of South Carolina, the Gamecocks’ only loss of the season, was key.

“You could see that in practice and on our bench, how happy and excited they were for each other,” Moren said. “You have to have skill and grit and toughness to get through games, but what set this group apart was how connected they were to one another and how desperately they wanted to have success, knowing individual success would lead to team success. How fun they were to coach.”

There was plenty of individual success as well. Freshman Mackenzie Holmes set a school record by shooting 63.4 percent from the field, the 6-foot-3 Maine native eclipsing the previous mark of 61.1 percent by Jenny Dittfach in 1995-96, en route to a spot on the Big Ten All-Freshman Team with 10.8 points per game.

“I was interested to see how Mackenzie’s game would translate to this level,” Moren said. “We knew she had an uncanny game with her footwork and being a throwback kind of player, so I’m not surprised but I was interested to see how quickly she would elevate her game for this level.

“She surprised a lot of people. I’m happy she was on the all-freshman team. She started off the Big Ten like gangbusters, and I thought she might be Freshman of the Year. There were moments she garnered that sort of respect. We’ve never had a true dominant five-man on the block that we had to get ball to since I’ve been here.”

Holmes was part of 1-2 punch with Aleksa Gulbe, who emerged as a sophomore after spending her freshman year adjusting from Latvia to America. The duo answered the post-play questions the preseason emphatically.

“Lex just came back in a different place,” Moren said. “What people forget is the freshman year is a transition for a lot of reasons and put hers times 10 coming from a different country — the language barrier, academic stress on top of the fact our schedule is pretty rigorous with how much we play and the short time in between. She was adjusting, and this year she had a whole different mindset, knowing what to expect. That’s where we got to see her progress. I just think she was more comfortable.

“She’s always been that talented. Her body has changed working with Kevin Konopasek in the weight room, but she was more comfortable being back here and knowing the rhythm of the season and the school year. That made her play more relaxed.”

Gulbe’s roommate, Berger, enjoyed the biggest breakout sophomore season, earning first team All-Big Ten from the coaches and second team from the media after averaging 13.1 points and 5.2 rebounds per game.

“We needed somebody to elevate their play a little bit,” Moren said. “Jaelynn was a question mark in the sense of just not being healthy, so we were pleased Grace could step in in the absence of Bendu and have such a fantastic season.”

No Hoosier had a more fantastic season than Patberg, who finished the season on a roll with 15 straight games in double figures and five of the last six with 20-plus points en route to first team All-Big Ten honors. Unlike four of her contemporaries, Patberg was passed over for AP All-American honors last week but is still a candidate for the WBCA All-American team after being named an All-Region finalist with Berger on Wednesday.

“Ali’s always been about the team, what the team can accomplish,” Moren said. “But there’s this other side of Ali she doesn’t talk about often. Ali gets deeply inspired and motivated by things like (the All-American snub). I would suspect that will somehow fuel her even more so than she already is.”

Patberg, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility, will have to do it without her transfer companion, Wise. Most teams would be glad to only be losing one senior, but the former Pitt standout will leave a larger void for the Hoosiers.

“She gave us not only what she was capable of doing on the floor from a pure basketball standpoint but her leadership was unreal,” Moren said. “I don’t know if I’ll have, I hope I do, but have someone like Brenna who is fiercely loyal to me and our staff and loved her teammates. She can separate her own self from what the team needs. That’s unique.

“Kids, it normally starts with them, what good am I getting from this — me, me, me. We would all agree perhaps senior year as far as numbers were lower than a year ago for Brenna, but what she did for this team, all those things don’t show up in the stat sheet. She had a more significant impact on the team than she will ever know.

“I don’t want to undersell that, but her sidekick Ali is a pretty good leader as well. She has the ear of all of her teammates. It’s funny how it always goes back to the extra work you do, but those two were always our hardest workers, even when sitting out their transfer year. So many transfers say they’ll be in the gym, but what they said is what they did every day. I’m going to personally miss Brenna for more than her being a stretch four for us.”

6 comments

  1. I have been a season ticket holder for at least 25 to 30 years and I can say without hesitation that this year’s team was the best and most enjoyable team I have every watched! Their high character, their devotion to each other and their approach to the game was enjoyable to watch. They played the game the way basketball is designed to be played. There were no individual stars and their teamwork was exceptional! They always had each other’s backs as they say and were the ultimate team. They played defense with a grittiness that is needed to be highly successful. We can only hope that every IU team to come will have the same great approach that this team displayed! Go Hoosiers!

  2. Lets hope what the coaching staff has started here will continue with leaders like Patberg and Wise, that they can find more players with the drive, passion, desire, and leadership needed to produce teams just like this one. Lets hope more of the upper level players see whats happening at IU and realize this a program on the rise and want to help take them to the promised land. Would this team have actually made it to the sweet sixteen as the simulation predicted , I for one believe so , believe they had a huge chip for not being selected to host although in the long run for what happened woud not have mattered. Ive said it before but I love this team and it is still a shame that not more students and people would watch them play in person, hopefully that part will change in time.

  3. Having been a long time season ticket holder, I have complained for years about the rather pathetic following we get at home games. I just don’t understand why the student population does not come out to support these girls especially since their admission is free when showing their student ID’S? It’s a crying shame we can only get a little over 3,000 per game although attendance was up a bit this year. You look at a high level program like South Carolina where their attendance averages over 13,500 a game and you would think that a basketball crazy state like Indiana would be able to do quite a bit better? Just wondering if the administration is doing all it can to market this team? We had a few really nice crowds this year but not up to the standard it should be? I really thought knowing that this past year was going to be a really good one that we would really increase our crowds dramatically but, that really didn’t happen? I have driven 200 miles round trip for the last 25 or so years for ever home game and I just don’t understand why the students can’t or won’t walk across campus to support this team when there is no cost? It’s just a damn shame to say the least! Go Hoosiers!!

  4. I’d initially felt somewhat taken aback by “Charlie Cremes way too early look at ESPN’s Top 25 Ranking List of Division 1 NCAA Women’s College Basketball Programs showing the Hoosiers with a measly 17 national ranking especially since they’re absolutely gonna be good enough to earn no lesser than a solid position within the Top #10 rankings by seasons end.

    And furthermore I honestly feel as if they’ll end up being placed on everyone’s short lists of ballclubs predicted as most likely to be in the final four come time for March Madness post season tournament play to kick off.

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