Teri Moren expected some rust and she expected some jitters and she got both.
Eleven days had passed since Indiana was stunned by Michigan State in the Big Ten women’s basketball tournament, and the Hoosiers entered the NCAA Tournament with their highest seed in school history — a No. 4 seed in the Mercado region. They had reason to feel all sorts of emotions and she figured it would take some time for the Hoosiers to get their feet set. And she was right.
“You come out in the first half of the NCAA Tournament and you’re pressing, man,” Moren said. “Because you want to do everything right. I think we were guilty of that.”
But after an unsteady first half against No. 13 seed Virginia Commonwealth, the Hoosiers basically did everything right in an overwhelming second half to cruise to a 63-32 win in San Antonio to advance to the second round for just the fourth time in school history in their seventh NCAA Tournament appearance. It was the stingiest performance ever by a Big Ten team in the NCAA Tournament, as no squad from the conference has ever given up fewer points in the event.
The Hoosiers have never reached the Sweet 16, but they will be the higher seeded team in the second round for the first time regardless of whether No. 5 seed Gonzaga or No. 12 Belmont advances to play them.
The Hoosiers’ lead was just 22-17 at halftime, but they outscored VCU 41-15 after the break and 22-3 in the fourth quarter to run away with it.
“You just anticipate with this group that we’ll be a little bit better and the third and we’ll be much better in the fourth,” Moren said. “Especially when our defense is clicking like it is.”
The IU defense was exceptional all game long, holding the Rams to 22.8 percent shooting (13 of 57) and .533 points per possession. The Rams made consecutive shots just twice in the entire game. They were 8 of 34 in the first half and 5 of 23 in the second half, missing each of their last 12 shots and failing to make a single field goal in the fourth quarter. The Hoosiers caused 14 turnovers and turned those into 17 points. No one on the VCU roster had more than eight points.
“I thought our kids really dug in, understood the scouting report,” Moren said. “Took away all their tendencies and really did a great job, other than the fact that we gave up 13 offensive rebounds.”
VCU seemed to scout the Hoosiers well, however. knowing that they like to push tempo, get up and down the floor and get the ball in the post to All-Big Ten forward Mackenzie Holmes. The Rams mixed a 3-2 zone with sagging man-to-man that effectively built a wall around the paint.
The Hoosiers struggled to adapt at first and found themselves settling for jump shots and 3-pointers in particular. Holmes got just two first-half field goal attempts and made both and the Hoosiers were 2 of 12 from beyond the 3-point arc.
They were bailed out, however, by junior All-Big Ten guard Grace Berger who found holes in the zone and attacked off the bounce for mid-range jump shots. She made 6 of 10 field goal attempts for 13 first-half points with one 3-pointer and one layup but the rest mid-range jumpers. The rest of the team scored nine on 4 of 20 shooting, and the Hoosiers scored just six first-half points in the paint.
“They were really sagging in, so the mid-range was open,” Berger said. “That’s my favorite shot. That’s my go-to shot. That’s what I’m most comfortable with. If I have an open mid-range shot, I’m going to take it and they were falling for me tonight.”
The Hoosiers adjusted at halftime, however, as Moren demanded more ball movement and player movement to get VCU defenders to scramble. That allowed Berger and fellow All-Big Ten guard Ali Patberg were able to exploit from the perimeter and that opened up some space for Holmes to finally work.
After missing their first two shots of the second half, the Hoosiers hit 14 of their next 20 and finished 14 of 24 for the half including 7 of 11 in the fourth quarter. They finished with 16 points in the paint in the second half after getting just six in the first, and took just six 3-point attempts, making three. They also drew more fouls after not getting to the line in the first half and hit 10 of 13 there in the second half.
Berger finished with a game-high 20 points on 9 of 16 shooting. Patberg scored 12 of her 17 points in the second half and Holmes scored 10 in the second half to finish with 14 for the game on 5 of 6 shooting.
The Hoosiers finished the game on a 24-3 run.
“We had to have kids that are willing to make that extra pass and understand where the gaps are going to be,” Moren said. “We had to get them on skates. If you only just pass it from seam to seam, there’s not ball movement, it’s easy for the defenders. They’re stationary. But you have to get them to move and to be thinking about moving parts. We were trying to get our kids to understand we’re going to run this high ball screen, we’re going to try to get the ball to Mack, and as soon as you pass the ball, you have to move, you have to slice cut, you have to get out and we have to rotate and fill that open spot. That’s really what the conversation was.”
And now the Hoosiers can move on with the jitters over and a convincing win.
“I do believe we got some momentum and it’s going to carry over to the next round,” Moren said. “Our best basketball is going to be ahead of us.”