They seemed stunned when they had to let it go.
When Arizona superstar guard Aari McDonald grabbed a rebound off a missed jumper by Indiana’s Grace Berger, raced down the floor dodging would-be foulers and flung the ball across midcourt to senior forward Shirley Baptiste, several Hoosiers swarmed Baptiste to try to foul and extend the game and their dream season just a little longer.
But with under 20 seconds left on the clock and Arizona up by 13, the Hoosiers were informed by a coach on that Indiana sideline that there was no use in doing so. So they could do nothing but stand around and watch as Baptiste dribbled out Arizona’s 66-53 win in the NCAA Mercado Regional Final and the last moments in the deepest NCAA Tournament run in Indiana women’s basketball history.
They started drifting off the floor with about 10 seconds to go while Arizona’s players gathered to mob Baptiste as soon as the clock struck zero. Indiana senior guard Patberg stopped to watch and take in the pain of seeing someone else celebrate their first ever trip to the Final Four but then apparently decided against it and turned away right before it was over.
It had not been Indiana’s best game. The Hoosiers couldn’t stop McDonald, the Wildcats’ 5-foot-6 flash of a point guard who was named Pac-12 Player of the Year and a second-team All-American this season. A likely top-10 pick in the WNBA draft, McDonald went off for 33 points to go with 11 rebounds and four assists. She hit five of her six 3-point shots and Arizona hit nine total. Indiana didn’t hit any and that was the biggest difference but not the only one. The Hoosiers also lost 42-34 on the glass in a game where they just seemed a touch slower to loose balls than Arizona was.
“Tonight was not our night,” Indiana coach Teri Moren said. “It was not an effort thing … But we didn’t play very well tonight.”
It was, however, their year, and in what they said was a quiet, pain-filled locker room they tried to remind themselves of that fact.
In so many ways, the Hoosiers accomplished more than any Indiana squad before them. They didn’t set a wins record with a pandemic-shortened schedule, but their six losses were the fewest since 1974-75 when they played just 22 games with a schedule that included Calvin and Taylor. Their 16 Big Ten wins were a school record. They cracked the top 10 for the first time in school history. And not only did they reach the Elite Eight for the first time ever, they won three NCAA Tournament games, which matched the Hoosiers combined total in program history before this season.
They earned everything they expected to get last season when they set a school record with 24 wins only to see the season ended before the NCAA Tournament because of the pandemic, and they gave IU more reason than ever to view its women’s program as on par, and for the moment superior to, the men’s program.
Because of changes in NCAA rules due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they can all return next season, including senior starters Patberg and Nicole Cardaño-Hillary so they have an opportunity to take another crack at it next year. Even if not everyone does return, they have reason to believe they have another run in them.
“We’re at a little bit of a loss for words,” sophomore forward Mackenzie Holmes said. “We all love each other and we wanted to be here for longer. We were all pretty upset. Coach Moren came in and talked to us. We just have to learn from it and pick our heads up and keep moving forward.”
They’ll have to learn how to better defend a singularly spectacular performer like McDonald, though she will likely be a professional by the summer. Cardaño-Hillary is the Hoosiers’ best on-ball defender and she has hounded opposing guards throughout the tournament, but she didn’t quite have the speed to contain McDonald. The three-time All-Pac-12 pick kept dribbling her into screens to create space for perimeter shots and flashed past her on drives to get to the rim. She had 10 of Arizona’s first 14 points, 17 on 7 of 11 shooting at the break and hit 20 before the end of the first minute of the second half. She added nine points in the fourth quarter including a three-point play that capped the scoring, finishing 12 of 20 from the field and 5 of 6 from 3.
To counter McDonald’s speed off the dribble, the Hoosiers sagged off some of Arizona’s other players to provide help defense and that ended up burning them. Three of McDonald’s four assists set up 3-pointers and some of those were wide open looks because of the number of defenders that were down in the paint.
“She’s tremendous,” Moren said. “She’s as fast of a player as we’ve played all year. There’s a reason she’s scored over 2,000 points in her career, because she is a very difficult matchup. You try to play off some of the other pieces that they have out there that you consider non-shooters, and then you get caught in some rotation issues and you give up some HORSE shots beyond the arc because you’re trying to fly around and scramble a little bit. She’s every bit as good as we thought she was, and she’s the reason why they’re going to the Final Four.”
The Hoosiers got 20 points from Holmes on 9 of 15 shooting, but she seemed fatigued down the stretch and didn’t score in the fourth quarter. Patberg had 12 but was 4 of 11 from the field. Junior guard Grace Berger had 15 points with three of her six field goals coming in the fourth quarter but she was somewhat quiet until then. Those three All-Big Ten players scored 47 of Indiana’s 53 points and had 19 of their 20 field goals.
And not even any of them could manage a 3-point shot which was a killer down the stretch. After trailing by as many as eight points in the third quarter, Indiana rallied back to tie the game early in the fourth quarter only to see Arizona go on an outside shooting barrage to go back up seven with 3:17 to go. Indiana couldn’t respond in kind because they couldn’t hit from outside, finishing 0 of 9 from beyond the arc.
“I was happy with the looks,” Moren said. “I wasn’t happy we didn’t hit any of them. Obviously, that would have been helpful.”
The Hoosiers executed other parts of their game plan, turning the ball over just nine times against Arizona’s ball-hawking defense. They held players other than McDonald to 12 of 41 shooting, though the four 3-pointers they allowed those players were obviously back-breakers.
But the rebounding margin, Moren said, spoke to a larger issue that made it difficult to break through.
“I thought they were tougher around the rim than we were,” Moren said. “I thought they wanted the ball more than we did. And that hasn’t been us. We’ve displayed a tremendous amount of toughness since we arrived here in the early rounds. Unfortunately tonight we didn’t have that extra burst to get to the ball.”
And that left them short of the Final Four in a matchup in which it had at least seemed possible. The Hoosiers had already gotten through the hardest part of winning a regional as a No. 4 seed, beating North Carolina State on Saturday night, so losing to a No. 3 made it sting a little more.
“I love this group,” Moren said. “It kills me that we couldn’t get them to Friday night. They’re just such a fun, hard-working, high-character group that deserves a moment like this, but also deserves to celebrate getting themselves into a Final Four. I think they’re good enough to do that.”
But she also believes that this is not the end for them, and for Indiana there will be more chances.
“We will be back,” Moren said. “We will be back.”