There were only tears and forced smiles when Indiana went through Senior Day ceremonies a month ago.
Given another chance to play a final home game on Monday night, the scene was much different for IU veterans Aleksa Gulbe, Ali Patberg, Nicole Cardano-Hillary and Grace Waggoner.
The tears were joyous, they couldn’t wipe the smiles from their faces, and the scene — it was festive to put it mildly — after Indiana overcame Princeton 56-55 to advance to the Sweet 16.
Patberg couldn’t hold back her emotions after Indiana lost 96-91 to Iowa on Feb. 19. The program’s traditional Senior Day ceremonies followed, and there stood the Hoosiers’ seventh-year leader with her family, pretending to enjoy the moment on the floor of Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.
Next in the post-game media session, more tears.
Overcome with emotion, Patberg couldn’t get through a question about Senior Day.
Gulbe stepped in with the assist.
“We know how Ali is and how she loves Indiana, of course it’s hard,” Gulbe said that day as Patberg fought back tears.
There was nothing forced about the scene that ensued after the final buzzer on Monday after the Hoosiers clinched their second straight appearance in the round of 16.
And the emotions? It was pure, unbridled joy.
Center Mackenzie Holmes was just back from knee surgery a month ago, clearly not herself as she worked to regain her stamina and timing.
On Monday she led the charge up the Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall bleachers behind the South basket in a spontaneous show of gratitude to the more than 9,000 who showed up to will the Hoosiers to a win over a very tough Princeton team.
So blessed to be an Indiana Hoosier every single day! Hoosier nation showed out in a big way last night!🤍❤️ pic.twitter.com/OUvUR6Zkl0
— Mackenzie Holmes (@kenzieholmes_) March 22, 2022
“I was like, screw it, I’m going to go run up and I’m going to go high-five them (the fans) and make them feel like they’re part of this victory because they are,” Holmes said.
Moments later, head coach Teri Moren was lifted off her feet and carried around the same court where the somber first Senior Day took place just weeks earlier.
The Hoosiers head coach welcomed the opportunity to celebrate Patberg’s now truly final game in Bloomington, even if it meant floating above the Branch McCracken Court momentarily.
“She’s been everything for our program. She’s our leader, off the court, on the court, and she’s a terrific competitor. She is a great human being. She pours into her teammates, and she makes everyone around her better,” Moren said of Patberg.
“I will say this: Nobody is more excited for Ali Patberg than her teammates are and her staff.”
Her teammates did in fact echo the sentiment.
“There’s nobody that deserves it more than Ali Patberg obviously because of the player she is and what she’s done for this program,” Grace Berger said.
“We want to work really hard for her, our leader, and give her as many wins as we can.”
— Indiana Women’s Basketball (@IndianaWBB) March 22, 2022
IT DOESN’T GET ANY EASIER FROM HERE
Indiana (24-8) expected Princeton to be a major challenge, and they got all they could handle from the Tigers.
But that was only the beginning.
Up next is 11-time national champion UConn in a game to be played in of all places — Connecticut.
The No. 2 seed Huskies will play just an hour from their campus in Bridgeport following a decision by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee that doesn’t make much sense. Should the Huskies advance past IU and into the regional final, they will have a major home court advantage over No. 1 seed N.C. State.
The Committee explained their decision was based on the seeding of the No. 2 seeds, that is, the overall No. 1 is paired with the worst No. 2, and so on. But there is no hard and fast rule mandating such an approach, and that logic doesn’t hold much water in this case. UConn’s home court advantage will more than erase any unscientific and intangible differences between the No. 2 seeds. Simply put, UConn should have been shipped off elsewhere — anywhere but Bridgeport.
But there is no changing that now, and UConn’s home court is Indiana’s problem first.
Should the Hoosiers advance, they will face N.C. State — the No. 1 seed they knocked out of the NCAA Tournament last year — or perennial national power Notre Dame.
Further down the line should the Hoosiers somehow make it to the Final Four is likely to be a whose who of great programs including Stanford, Maryland, Texas, Michigan, South Carolina, Tennessee and Louisville.
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