Indiana women advance to first ever Elite Eight in nailbiter upset of NC State

History is generally not made easily, and so it was perhaps strangely fitting that at the same time Indiana was sitting on the verge of doing something it had never done before, it was also on the brink of what would have been a devastating late-game collapse.

The No. 4 seed Hoosiers had a 14-point lead over No. 1 seed North Carolina State in the third quarter of Saturday’s NCAA Mercado Regional Semifinal and a 10-point lead with just 2:51 to go in the game. But the Wolfpack scored eight straight points in under 90 seconds to come within two of the Hoosiers with 1:29 left to put the pressure on Indiana the rest of the way.

But the Hoosiers came up with a massive stop with 30 seconds to go, and then a 3-pointer by NC State All-American Elissa Cunane just before the buzzer that could have tied the game failed to draw iron and the Hoosiers got to celebrate a 73-70 win in the Alamodome in San Antonio and the first trip to the Elite Eight in the history of the Indiana women’s basketball program. The Hoosiers will face No. 3 seed Arizona on Monday.

The late-game stress clearly added emotion to the celebration. Junior guard Grace Berger grabbed Cunane’s miss, hollered and flexed and then sprinted to midcourt to join the rest of the Hoosiers in a bouncing mob at midcourt.

Indiana might have been able to make this sort of history a season ago when the COVID-19 pandemic halted a season in which the Hoosiers won a school record 24 games. They shook off that disappointment, however, and have already claimed as many wins in this NCAA Tournament — three — as they did in all six of their previous NCAA Tournaments combined.

“This is a dream to play for Indiana,” senior guard Ali Patberg, a Columbus North graduate and 2015 Indiana Miss Basketball, said while fighting back tears in the post-game press conference. “I grew up right down the road (from Bloomington). I’m a Hoosier. This means the world to me. My team, our program, it’s a blessing. It’s a dream come true.”

It’s a dream that not long ago seemed close impossible for the Indiana women’s program. For much of its existence, it was a winter afterthought while the men’s program was winning Big Ten and national titles under Bob Knight and it was dwarfed in-state by much more successful women’s programs at Notre Dame and Purdue. The Hoosiers scored an upset of No. 3 seed Kentucky in the 1983 NCAA Tournament to reach the Sweet 16 in the then 36-team event, but didn’t reach another tournament after that until 1994. When Moren took over the program in 2014, the Hoosiers had a total of four NCAA Tournament appearances and that 1983 win over Kentucky was their only victory in the event. They hadn’t earned a berth since 2002.

But Moren got them there in 2016 and the Hoosiers won their first tournament game in 33 years. They reached the WNIT the next two seasons, winning the event in 2018, then got back in the NCAA Tournament in 2019 and won another game. Last year’s 24-8 season was another sign of progress, and this year they’re 21-5 and earned a school record 16 Big Ten wins before beginning this tournament run.

“Indiana, the state of Indiana, is basketball,” Moren said. “It means so much for us to be able to do what we did tonight. We are building. We continue just to build on tradition. The tradition was always on the men’s side. We wanted to build our own. When people talk about Indiana basketball, we didn’t want it to be exclusive just to the men’s side.”

In a year when the IU men finished 12-15 without an NCAA Tournament berth and fired their head coach, Moren’s Hoosiers have given them something much more pleasant to watch.

For much of Saturday’s game, the Hoosiers actually seemed to be on the road to blowing out one of the top teams in the land, a North Carolina State team that entered the game 22-2 with a 10-game winning streak including a win in the ACC Tournament.

Indiana fell behind 22-11 in the first quarter, but a 3-pointer by Patberg just before the end of the period started a 13-2 run that tied the game midway through the second quarter. The Hoosiers made just five of their first 18 shots and eight of their first 27, but after that, they made 20 of their next 27. In the second and third quarters, they outscored N.C. State 44-26 and three times in the third quarter their lead swelled to 14 points.

Their lead came in large part because of turnovers on the defensive end that turned into instant offense. They caused 17 North Carolina State turnovers that led to 20 Indiana points. They had 10 steals and had 18 fast-break points.

But even in half-court sets, they were able to work the ball around and get easy looks at the rim. Their guards got there off the bounce and on cuts and forwards got there on post-ups, rolls and slips. The Hoosiers shot 47.7 percent from the field and scored 42 points in the paint.

All five of their starters finished in double figures. Patberg led the group with 17 points. Sophomore forward Mackenzie Holmes had 16. Senior point guard Nicole Cardaño-Hillary had 14 thanks in large part to her four steals. Berger had 12 points to go with 12 rebounds and forward Aleska Gulbe had 11 to go with 10 rebounds.

“We have so many weapons offensively,” Patberg said. “We just kept attacking. I think early, even me, I settled early for 3s and jump shots. In the second half we just put pressure on him. We went downhill, got to the basket, made them guard, moved the ball from side-to-side. There are so many players in that locker room that are so skilled.”

But North Carolina State has skilled players too, and when the Wolfpack didn’t turn the ball over they hit shots, finishing 28 of 56 from the field (50 percent) for the game and nine of 19 from beyond the 3-point arc. They were 8 of 14 in the fourth quarter and made things extremely dangerous for Indiana when Holmes was called for an offensive foul with 3:24 to go and fouled out of the game.

The Hoosiers were up eight points at the time and freshman forward Kiandra Browne, who stepped in to Holmes spot at center, stepped up with a defensive stop and then a layup on the other end to make it 70-60 with 2:51 to go. However, North Carolina State got 3-pointers on the next two possessions by guards Raina Perez and Jada Boyd on the next two possessions, then got a jumper from Boyd with 1:29 to go to make it a 70-68 game. The 8-0 run happened that quick and put the Hoosiers on their heels.

But even with Holmes out, they trusted that they’d find a way to hold on.

“We just kept saying we’re gonna get a stop,” Patberg said. “We’re gonna get a stop. Our coaches had us ready for whatever they were going to come out and run. We knew we were going to get a stop. There’s just a different type of mentality in our locker room.”

The mentality was put to the test when Browne missed two free throws with 1:09 left that would have made it a two-possession game. The Hoosiers seemed to have a stop on the ensuing possession when Berger grabbed an errant pass from Perez, but it popped out of her hands and off her leg and went out of bounds with 42 seconds to go, giving the Wolfpack a re-set shot clock.

But Cunane, who finished with 15 points, 12 rebounds and five assists, came up short on a left-handed attempt near the rim and Patberg tracked down the long rebound with 25.7 seconds left.

The Wolfpack were short of the bonus and had to foul several times to get Indiana to the line. They eventually fouled Cardaño-Hillary, a 50 percent free throw shooter, but she made both to make it 72-68 with 21.1 seconds left.

Perez hit a leaner in the lane with 13.5 seconds left to make it 72-70 and put pressure back on Indiana, and Patberg hit just one of two free throws to make it a three-point game with 11.3 seconds to go.

Indiana chose not to foul on the ensuing possession, and North Carolina State got a favorable switch with the 5-foot-6 Cardaño-Hillary on the 6-5 Cunane, a 40.7 percent 3-point shooter coming into the game, but Cunane rushed the shot and banked it high off the left side of the glass and the Hoosiers held on.

“We’re over the moon right now,” Moren said. “… We never blinked. We just held true to who we are and dug our heels in.”

And moved farther than they’ve ever gone before.