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‘It means a little more’: IU’s win over Iowa brought out tension and passion as strong as Assembly Hall can get

When two elite teams and budding rivals square off in a crazed atmosphere, things can get heated.

That was always a likely outcome when Indiana women’s basketball took on Iowa, and it didn’t take long for those emotions to surface on the court.

Just over two minutes into the game, Iowa All-American Caitlin Clark drilled her second 3-pointer, on a stepback, with Grace Berger in her grill. Clark turned to the Indiana bench, and looked straight at the Hoosiers while putting up three fingers on each hand in celebration.

“Wow. Okay,” yelled a nearby Hoosier fan. “It’s on now, Caitlin!”

The program-record 13,046 fans in attendance at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall showed Clark particular vitriol from the moment they took their seats, but that moment took it up a notch. The booing and audible disdain for Iowa’s star became more intense for the rest of the game.

“I thought the crowd’s energy was awesome, but it wasn’t anything we didn’t expect,” Clark said. “You know it’s going to be a hostile environment. People booing, cheering, yelling at you. But you’re a competitor, and those are the moments you live for, and that’s how it should be. If you want the attention and you want crowds like that, that’s just something you’ve got to expect, and play through it.”

Later in the opening quarter, the bad blood boiled over. With just under three minutes left, Clark drew a foul on a 3-pointer on Chloe Moore-McNeil. Indiana’s sideline took exception, claiming that Clark initiated the contact by sticking out her leg. The crowd made the same plea upon seeing the replay. IU associate head coach Glenn Box passionately made that case to the officials. Meanwhile, an Iowa teammate held back Clark as she yelled back at Box and the Indiana bench.

“Coach (Teri) Moren always says, ‘Play with emotion, but don’t be emotional,'” Mackenzie Holmes said. “So play with that intensity, that energy, that passion, but don’t get too worked up in all the stuff that doesn’t matter, the foul calls, them making a run, just all those things that we can’t control, just don’t get too caught up in that, and stay focused, and just keep our foot on the pedal.”

The fervor persisted throughout the rest of the game, as IU pulled away in the fourth quarter with an 87-78 win. But after that fiery first quarter, the emotion blended with tension. Indiana and Iowa are two superb, highly-ranked basketball teams who were locked in a close game with conference title implications at stake.

Fans continued filling the arena with screams, but each possession started feeling extremely important. Each call or swallowed whistle felt like a critical moment. Every big play felt like it could be the thing that swings the game in either direction.

Those sentiments, too, remained prevalent for the rest of the game, until IU extended its lead late in the fourth quarter to a comfortable enough gap that fans could start to exhale.

It can be easier said than done for players to stay level-headed and maintain positive energy with circumstances like these. And in crunch time of this massive contest, Indiana was the more composed team.

This game meant a lot to the Hoosiers. They lost all three meetings with the Hawkeyes last year, and felt like they didn’t have a real chance at winning them. Those regular-season contests took place in a three-day span, and the third — the Big Ten championship game — was 13 days later, all while Holmes remained limited after a knee injury.

Those games were all intense, and close, and they stuck with IU.

“I just really wanted to win. I know Iowa’s a really great team, they’re a top-five team in the country for a reason,” Berger said. “I remember losing to them three times last year, and in the Big Ten championship game, so yeah, anytime we play a great team like that, it means a little more.”

The Hoosiers and Hawkeyes played an extremely high-level women’s college basketball game. They looked every bit of the top-five teams they are. And in this matchup with so much talent on the court, Berger took over when it mattered most.

And with each mid-range shot she knocked down, each move she used to shake off a defender and create space, and each pass she made that cut open Iowa’s defense, the crowd roars grew ever-louder. And with each time Iowa answered back, the tension equally grew.

That’s what happens on nights of this magnitude. Assembly Hall has seen countless like it over the years. There are at least three or four home dates in every IU men’s basketball season that produce that sort of emotion.

Until recently, this sort of night was merely a dream for IU women’s basketball. But these occasions — with record-setting crowds, high-level basketball, and a thick tension only matched by passion — are becoming a regular occurrence for Moren’s program.

It’s yet another sign of how far this program has come during her tenure, and how much the game has grown in Bloomington under her stewardship.

“One of our responsibilities as coaches is to grow our game. Our fans have certainly helped with that, here in Bloomington and the surrounding counties, just by showing up and supporting this group of young ladies. It is special,” Moren said. “I can’t tell you how grateful we are that we’ve had the crowds that we’ve had, and I hope that this becomes the new normal for Indiana women’s basketball.”

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