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Maintaining focus will be key for IU women’s basketball heading into tough stretch

As Indiana women’s basketball’s historic run continues, it’s easy to think about the possible destinations that await this team.

And that may be its biggest challenge heading into the stretch run. These Hoosiers have shown mental toughness all season long, meeting a plethora of moments with appropriate calmness or intensity.

The next time Indiana plays is February 1. IU has seven games left in the regular season. That stretch is all that separates this program from its second-ever Big Ten regular season title. To do that, Indiana has to stay focused on the little things. And that gets challenging when big things get ever-closer.

“Our first and ultimate goal is to win the Big Ten regular season championship. And to do that, you can’t really lose much more than maybe one, maybe two, maybe three games. Playing in the best conference in the Big Ten, that’s really hard to do,” senior Grace Berger said. “We’re going to have a battle every single night, and if we want to accomplish our first goal of winning the regular season, we have to come out every game ready, and win.”

Indiana’s February schedule is no walk in the park. While Minnesota is near the bottom of the standings, IU’s final six games are all against difficult opponents. The Hoosiers get two games against Purdue, which just gave Ohio State its third straight loss and is firmly on the NCAA Tournament bubble. They face a tough road game in Columbus, and another big home test against Michigan.

And IU has two games left against Iowa, which has become perhaps its biggest rival in women’s basketball. The Hoosiers and Hawkeyes are in first and second place in the Big Ten, and played three memorable games last year. There’s bad blood in that matchup.

The Hoosiers haven’t been fazed by difficult opponents before, but they have not yet faced a six-game stretch like that. Indiana has to navigate that road the right way to survive it.

“You continue to coach your team just like you’ve always coached your team, and you don’t look ahead,” IU head coach Teri Moren said. “Our staff, myself included, we have to do the job of leading this group. And although they are very mature, and I’ve talked about the maturity level, we can’t get ahead of ourselves. We have an incredibly difficult stretch.”

2022-23 Women’s Basketball Standings

Indiana 10-1
Iowa 9-1
Maryland 8-2 
Ohio State 8-3
Illinois 7-4
Michigan 7-4
Purdue 6-5

Indiana remaining schedule

2/1/2023 – at Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minn. 8:00 P.M.
2/5/2023 – at Purdue, West Lafayette, Ind. 2:00 P.M.
2/9/2023 –  Iowa, Bloomington, Ind. 6:30 P.M.
2/13/2023 –  at Ohio State, Columbus, Ohio TBA
2/16/2023 – Michigan, Bloomington, Ind. 8:30 P.M.
2/19/2023 = Purdue, Bloomington, Ind. 12:00 P.M.
2/26/2023 – at Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa 4:00 P.M.

Iowa and Maryland both have one more game left to play than IU, and each has five games remaining against tournament hopefuls. Ohio State and Michigan, like Indiana, have seven games to go, and four of those are against tournament hopefuls.

So the Hoosiers do have the toughest path to the Big Ten title of any contenders.

They have the talent to pull it off, and to potentially accomplish more in the postseason. But they know they have to be careful.

“I think the potential’s there. We’ve seen it. But I also know that this can be a funny game. If you’re not ready night in and night out, you’re always in jeopardy of coming up short. We try to really be careful with just sort of keeping our heads down and keeping the noise out, and just talking about what’s next,” Moren said. “As long as we can focus on what’s next and not look ahead, which we don’t — we don’t allow ourselves to do that — I think the potential is certainly there.”

Indiana’s had success over the last several years, but not to this degree. Entering February last season, IU was 14-3. In 2020-21, the Hoosiers were 10-4.

Only the best teams in the country are hitting the 20-win mark before February. IU has been in that range before, but this is something different.

Indiana came close to the Big Ten title last year, too. IU was right in the mix, despite star forward Mackenzie Holmes missing time and returning at less than full strength. But a condensed late-season schedule of five games in 10 days caught up with the Hoosiers and they lost too much ground in the race.

The year before, in 2020-21, IU finished one game shy of the regular season crown. So Moren and her program have experience in this race. And it’s a team built around experienced players, even with so many new faces on the roster this year. Moren thinks the tests they’ve faced to this point will help them going into the toughest part of the schedule.

“The experience means everything. In order to win a championship, you have to be battle-tested inside of every game, and we’ve done that, but we’ve also shown a great amount of maturity and resilience,” Moren said. “We’ve had to grind some of them out, there’s been times that we’ve really had to rely on our defense, there’s been times that we’ve really had to rely on our offense. We’ve already been tested early, and that’s good for this basketball team, I think.”

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