Photo credit IU Athletics

Indiana women’s basketball’s response to Iowa loss will be crucial for March hopes

Indiana women’s basketball has gotten used to winning.

It’s only natural, when you win as much as the Hoosiers have this season.

Indiana, ranked No. 2 in the AP Poll and the Coaches Poll and receiving its first-ever first-place votes in both polls last week, was 26-1 entering Sunday’s showdown at Iowa. The Hoosiers have been one of the best teams in the country this season, racking up nine wins over AP-ranked opponents, second-most in the nation.

But even after already securing the outright Big Ten title, this game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena was IU’s toughest test to date. Four of those nine ranked wins came on the road, but the Hawkeyes are stronger than all of those teams. IU beat Iowa at home, but it’s a different story going into a hostile atmosphere.

And for the first time since December 29, Indiana came out on the wrong side of the scoreboard. Caitlin Clark’s 3-pointer at the buzzer gave Iowa an 86-85 win and stunned the Hoosiers.

“It’s a 40-minute game, and there’s a lot of reps in there that we all wish we could have back. It never comes down to one play,” IU head coach Teri Moren said. “Whether it’s me play-calling over there and calling a bad set, or (associate head coach Glenn) Box scheming and allowing an easy bucket, and every one of our kids, there’s probably a play they want back. It never, ever comes down to one play.”

So now, for the second time this season, Indiana has to figure out how to move forward after a frustrating defeat.

The circumstances were quite different the first time IU faced this, after the loss at Michigan State. Grace Berger was still out with the knee injury that cost her eight games, and a healthy Berger in that matchup could’ve completely changed the outcome.

And still, it was a game the Hoosiers knew they should’ve won, but they didn’t.

That created some unknowns heading into the next game against Nebraska, because this team — with so many new faces — had not yet experienced a loss together. Even though this group has plenty of veterans, there was no way to know how a loss would impact them before that.

And the Hoosiers handled that situation well. They showed a lot of heart in that battle with the Cornhuskers and earned an overtime victory.

But this is different.

At this point in the season, the Hoosiers know who they are — a really good basketball team. Nobody had beaten them at full strength until Sunday. Even after losing to Michigan State, there wasn’t really a question as to whether the Spartans were suddenly better than the Hoosiers. That was a winnable game for Indiana, but it got away, largely because of self-inflicted errors.

But even though Indiana wasn’t flawless in Iowa City, this result was more because of Iowa outplaying IU than it was IU giving the game away. And that could create uncertainty.

After the Nebraska win, Mackenzie Holmes said she and her teammates owned up to the mistakes they made during the Michigan State game as they watched the film and hit the practice court. That served the Hoosiers well and allowed them to quickly move on.

On Sunday, Sydney Parrish said the next few days could look like more of the same.

“I think our coaching staff does a great job of just keeping us humble, and just together every single day of practice, and holding us accountable every day,” Parrish said. “I think that’s really going to help us make the runs we need in these tournaments.”

In moving forward, IU will lean on the effort it put up while behind for most of the game. IU trailed by 11 points in the first quarter, but didn’t let the environment, the rival opponent, or the score throw them off. The Hoosiers punched right back, like they have all year.

But unlike most of those previous games, it wasn’t enough this time.

This was a taste of what March could look like for IU if things go awry. The Hoosiers are still in good shape for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and it would be a massive upset for them to lose in the first two rounds at home in Bloomington.

But to reach a Final Four, or to hang a banner, Indiana may need to win a game like this against a high-powered opponent in an unfavorable atmosphere. IU ran into that last season, in the Sweet 16 matchup against UConn in Bridgeport, Conn.

This team has won those difficult games several times this season. The Hoosiers, both before this loss and even after it, had nothing left to prove in the regular season. They were worthy conference champions, and boasted a 26-2 overall record against a challenging schedule.

But heading into the postseason, the Hoosiers still have much to prove. That they can finish the job in the Big Ten Tournament. That this already successful team can repeat — or top — the NCAA Tournament success the last few IU teams had.

That they can get it done on the biggest stage.

For Indiana, that all starts with how it responds to this loss. They have four days to get back on track before their Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal, against either Nebraska or Michigan State. With the Hoosiers looking to bounce back, both matchups would be ironic: either the only other team they lost to all season, or against the team they played right after that first loss.

But regardless of the opponent, the venue, or the circumstances, Moren is going to take the same approach she always has to keep her team locked in.

“We do what we always do, and that is, either we feel good or we feel bad for 24 hours, and then we return and we get back to work,” Moren said. “That’s what we’ve done for the last nine years. And that won’t change, no matter what the group is inside that locker room.”

The Daily Hoosier –“Where Indiana fans assemble when they’re not at Assembly”