Photo credit IU Athletics

IU women’s basketball’s mental toughness and ‘moxie’ could take them far

With each passing game, Indiana women’s basketball has shown more of its makeup.

The No. 6 Hoosiers are talented, battle-tested, physically tough, and mentally strong. They displayed all four of those qualities in their 68-61 win over No. 9 Maryland Thursday at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, but the mental fortitude shined the brightest.

“I think we’re a team that doesn’t have any quit in us,” said IU All-American forward Mackenzie Holmes. “We’re going to fight until the last buzzer, and I think that was evident tonight.”

IU controlled the game from the beginning of the second quarter, but couldn’t seem to firmly pull away. Maryland hung around, even though its offense disappeared after the first quarter. Indiana knew the Terps would make a run at some point, because that’s what good teams do.

And Maryland did.

Over a span of 8:42 between the third and fourth quarters, Maryland went on a 16-6 run to tie the game at 50-50. The Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall crowd remained loud and into the game, but Maryland overcame it. IU’s offense slowed down in that period, and Diamond Miller took over, with 10 of Maryland’s 16 points during that run.

But the Hoosiers didn’t bat an eye. They came right back at Maryland, as if nothing had happened. Grace Berger drove into the middle, drew in defenders, and kicked it out to freshman Yarden Garzon. The Israeli nailed the 3-pointer to regain the lead.

Garzon is off to an impressive start to her IU career, and is among the early favorites for Big Ten freshman of the year. But this was her biggest individual moment for the Hoosiers so far.

“No one’s surprised that Yarden knocked that shot in,” IU head coach Teri Moren said. “She’s about as cool as they come in those moments, in spite of the fact that she’s a freshman.”

Berger kept on chugging, with another assist on IU’s next possession, followed by her trademark pullup jumper. This was just her second game back on the court after missing eight contests with a knee injury suffered in late November. And while that mid-range shot wasn’t as automatic as it often is, Berger’s court presence is immense. As everyone in the IU program would say, she makes her teammates better.

But it was everyone on the floor for IU who made that turnaround happen, not just Berger. They all locked in defensively for those next few critical possessions.

It took Maryland 5:31 to come back from a seven-point deficit at 47-40, and it took IU just 1:02 to re-establish the seven-point advantage.

“This is a veteran basketball team. I think you just trust them,” Moren said. “You trust that they’re going to make the right plays offensively, know what a good shot looks like for us, but certainly, they also have to turn around and get stops for us.”

That short spurt to decide the game is a microcosm for Indiana’s season, and really for its ascent as a program. It’s hard to face a more adverse circumstance than an All-American suffering a knee injury and missing over a month. But Indiana pushed forward, fought back, and found ways to win without Berger.

The Terrapins used to a be a thorn in Indiana’s side. IU was a program trying to break through and prove it belonged at the big kids table in the Big Ten. The Hoosiers took incremental steps toward that group through the years, but Maryland was the one nut they couldn’t crack. IU didn’t beat Maryland for the first time until January 2022.

And suddenly, the Hoosiers have won three of their last four over the Terps.

That’s just another sign of how far this IU program has come. This version of IU women’s basketball has become the tough nut to crack.

“The statistics are what they are, but at the end of the day, you still have to have competitors, no matter who’s on the floor,” Moren said. “Maryland is still Maryland, and (they still have) the moxie that they travel with. But make no mistake, this team that is wearing the Hoosiers across their chest, they have some moxie about them as well.”

This is a team that can win in a lot of different ways. The Hoosiers can hang big numbers on opponents and win higher-scoring affairs, they can grind out lower-scoring games, and anything in between.

IU can win in the paint through Holmes. IU can win through 3-point shooting with Garzon, Sara Scalia, and Sydney Parrish. Indiana can win by Berger taking over in mid-range and driving. This team can win with Chloe Moore-McNeil locking down some top-notch opposing players.

This regular season is just over halfway complete, and IU looks like one of the best teams in the country. This Indiana is a more complete, well-rounded team than its past several versions. Statistically, it’s been a historic start for the program. IU’s 15-1 record is its best through 16 games since 1974-75 — seven years before the first-ever NCAA women’s basketball tournament.

It’s a team that appears built for March success. IU has the star power, the strong supporting cast, and the necessary mental and physical strength to overcome obstacles along the way.

“This is a team that has goals, and they know what they have to do in order to achieve those goals. You’ve got to win all of them, in order to do what we want to do. You’ve got to be able to win all of them. Time will tell with that,” Moren said. “But this is a hungry group. They’ve been enjoyable to coach, but there’s still a lot of season left.”

The way Indiana calmly delivered counterpunches and knockout blows against a top-10 team spoke volumes. The Hoosiers have plenty of challenges ahead, in less favorable environments than Thursday’s.

But based on the way this season’s gone so far, this much remains clear: Indiana women’s basketball is a serious Final Four threat.

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