A confident Sara Scalia makes IU women’s basketball even more lethal

These types of nights used to come frequently for Sara Scalia.

Games where she shoots with such confidence and swagger that everything she releases looks like a bucket. Games where, once an opponent allows her to get hot, there’s no turning back.

Scalia had numerous nights like that while playing at Minnesota. She’s had flashes of that form at times this season, but with less consistency on a team with far more talent than those Gophers squads.

But in Indiana’s 83-59 win at Ohio State on Monday, that version of Scalia showed up. She scored a season-high 24 points on a 9-for-12 shooting line, the most efficient clip of her collegiate career between both schools. She drilled a season-high six 3-pointers on eight attempts, which is tied for her career-best efficiency from beyond the arc.

“I just, early, got a couple open looks that I hit. Once a few started falling, just kept shooting, and trusted the work I put in to be able to hit shots specifically from the 3-point line,” Scalia said. “That’s kind of what showed tonight.”

Scalia has regained her confidence after a prolonged midseason slump that lasted over six weeks. She’s scored in double figures in three of the last four games; it’s the first time she’s put up numbers like that since December.

After averaging 17.9 points per game as a junior at Minnesota, Scalia is down to 9.8 this season at IU. But the senior is playing a different role, on a different team, than she’d become accustomed to.

Scalia opened the season in Indiana’s starting five, and got off to a strong start, averaging over 13 points per game through the first month. She started the first 14 games of the year for the Hoosiers. But because of her slump, and because of how well Sydney Parrish was playing, Scalia went to the bench when Grace Berger returned from her knee injury.

During her three seasons at Minnesota, Scalia came off the bench only twice. She started 78 games in her Gophers career. But the circumstances are completely different between there and Indiana, a team that looks like a national title contender.

During her three seasons in Minneapolis, the Golden Gophers went a combined 38-44. She saw postseason action just once, in the 2022 WNIT, where Minnesota was knocked out in the second round.

Her new team, IU, is now 24-1, ranked No. 2 in the country, and features multiple All-Americans in Berger and Mackenzie Holmes. It’s a different basketball experience for Scalia, but a welcome one.

“It’s fun to win, specifically. I think that’s just the biggest thing. I like to win,” Scalia said. “We’re not done yet, we’ve still got a long way to go. But just playing on a team like this, with a lot of talent, it’s really fun. Everyone’s going to have their nights. I think it’s just fun being on a team like this.”

Scalia tied for the team lead in scoring as a sophomore, and was the centerpiece of Minnesota’s offense as a junior. She was a high-volume shooter on a mediocre team, averaging 15.5 field goal attempts per game. This season, Scalia is attempting 9.1 field goals per game.

She’s had to embrace playing Indiana’s style of basketball, understand that she won’t be able to fire away as often as she did with Minnesota, and accept that her playing time may fluctuate from game to game.

But that’s all part of why she came to Bloomington. She wanted an opportunity to win games, and she wanted to become a more complete player. And at IU, that meant buying in defensively.

“(Defense is) a non-negotiable here. In order to get on the floor for us, you have to be interested in that side of the ball. We have challenged her day in and day out, from the beginning of this thing, on the defensive side of the ball,” IU head coach Teri Moren said. “I think she came here to really be challenged, and because of that, and because she’s accepted the coaching, she’s accepting the challenge, you see her defense is really improved for us.”

Indiana has a lot of good defenders, so it can be tough to stand out on that end sometimes. And Scalia is not IU’s best defender.

But this was a player whom IU coaches weren’t entirely sure how engaged she’d be on defense coming in, and were pleasantly surprised with her defensive effort in preseason. And it took some time, but she’s a lot more capable now. Scalia matched up against Iowa star Caitlin Clark several times during that top-five showdown, and she held her own.

And that defensive improvement has boosted her confidence on offense.

“I think, right now, you’re seeing Sara being a confident defender and doing what we’re asking her to do, and having success. But I also think that it is also maybe transferring over into what she’s doing offensively for us right now,” Moren said. “And so, instead of just focusing on being just a great shooter, she has to focus on defense as well. I think the defensive end has given her great confidence.”

Scalia, for the first time in months, looks like the player who nearly single-handedly beat IU last season at Assembly Hall.

Indiana has been rolling this season even with Scalia’s up-and-down production. The Hoosiers brought her in with Parrish and Yarden Garzon to improve their outside shooting, and those two both have higher 3-point percentages than the former Gopher.

And, unlike at Minnesota, IU can still thrive if Scalia is struggling.

But after a long stretch of off-games, she’s finally on again. And when the Hoosiers add this version of Scalia to all their other weapons, they become that much more dangerous.