Photo credit IU Athletics

Sara Scalia’s competitiveness fueled her development and led her to IU women’s basketball

While the Big Ten women’s basketball tournament makes its Target Center debut, Sara Scalia doesn’t need an introduction.

Growing up in Stillwater, Minn. — around a 30-minute drive from Minneapolis — the IU guard became very familiar with the arena. Her family had Minnesota Lynx season tickets, courtside, for eight years, from her fifth grade year through 11th grade. Maya Moore was her favorite player when she played at UConn, and then she became Scalia’s hometown hero in Minnesota.

Sitting that close, she interacted with Moore a few times. Scalia joined the Lynx for their on-court victory dance on several occasions. She saw the team win four WNBA titles up close.

Scalia’s also played at Target Center before, though unofficially. Her father, Peter, ran the Stillwater girls basketball travel program she participated in; and he organized Lynx group tickets that came with a free hour of court time. So Sara played several scrimmages at Target Center in elementary and middle school.

She dreamt what it would be like to play there for real.

“I always thought that if you played there, it was going to be like a big game,” Scalia said, “so clearly you did something right.”

On Friday, Scalia’s Target Center moment arrived. And she made it count, scoring 20 points and making clutch plays during IU’s win over Michigan State in the quarterfinals.

Scalia played at Williams Arena in Minneapolis in February, her first game back at Minnesota since transferring away last spring. But this was her first real game in the home of the Lynx and the Timberwolves.

Photo submitted by Peter Scalia

She may not have shown it through her body language, but this was significant for Scalia. She had a big group of family and friends at Friday’s game, and they, too, knew what it meant.

“She’s been there a hundred times, watching the Lynx play,” Peter said. “And now to be on that floor, I think, is pretty special for her.”

Scalia is a big reason the Hoosiers are in line for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. She’s had to adjust to different playing circumstances than she had at Minnesota, for the good of her team.

A new role

As Grace Berger approached her return from her knee injury in January, IU head coach Teri Moren and her staff had a decision to make.

Berger was healthy enough to re-enter the starting lineup right away at Northwestern. That meant someone from IU’s starting lineup, which went 7-1 without the fifth-year, would have to come off the bench.

Before Berger’s injury, Scalia started with Sydney Parrish coming off the bench. But during that stretch with Berger out, Parrish elevated her play, while Scalia’s numbers dropped. IU coaches knew their lineup choice was clear.

So leading up to that game, Moren pulled Scalia aside for a conversation. She told the senior it would be best to bring her off the bench, given where the team was at with Berger returning. She assured Scalia that this wouldn’t change much, as she’d still play a lot.

As a competitor, that wasn’t easy for Scalia to hear at first. But she came to IU to win, and the Hoosiers have done a lot of that this season.

“Whether I was coming off the bench or starting, I’m still trying to come into the game and contribute, and help the team in the best way we can,” Scalia said. “As long as we’re winning the game, and the team’s playing well, I’m content.”

After talking with Moren, Scalia called her dad, who coached her throughout her youth basketball years.

Peter appreciated Moren’s approach to the situation, ensuring Sara still felt important and understanding how that could sound. And he reminded Sara of their discussion when she decided to leave Minnesota. He was concerned about the element of unknown she’d face by entering the portal, risking going to an even harder situation than she left.

But Sara said she’d embrace whatever came her way with no regrets. And that feeling persisted with the lineup change.

“She told me she was going to accept whatever happens, good or bad, and she wasn’t going to look back. She wasn’t upset about not starting, although she’s competitive. If a kid doesn’t have some kind of feeling about it, they don’t have any feelings at all,” Peter said. “But she’s accepted it.”

A new style

Coming off the bench requires a different mindset than starting, and Scalia had to get used to that. She hasn’t regularly come off the bench since she was in eighth grade — Scalia started 78 of her 80 games at Minnesota, and started for four years at Stillwater Area High School — so it was an unfamiliar position.

But she expected adjustment when she came to Indiana. Scalia was an offensive force with the Golden Gophers. They typically needed her to produce to have any chance in games.

However, it’s different at IU, with more talent than Scalia’s Gophers teams had, and a different style of play. The Hoosiers added Scalia, among others, to improve their 3-point shooting, so they want her taking those shots. But there are more mouths to feed in Bloomington, and this team plays through Mackenzie Holmes in the post.

So Scalia’s statistics are mostly lower than they were in Minneapolis.

But she’s improved a lot defensively, which is a staple of IU’s program. She knew that would require work when she got to Bloomington, and she credited associate head coach Glenn Box for helping her get better.

Teammates have noticed and appreciated how Scalia has adjusted at IU. Holmes said her decision to come to Indiana, at all, was mature.

“It shows she wants to win, and she’s willing to do whatever it takes, whether she’s coming off the bench or starting. I think that speaks volumes of her character,” Holmes said. “Her willingness to defend and her willingness to hit open shots has been really special to see.”

Scalia came to Indiana to grow her game, and to win. If that meant sacrificing an offensive role that earned her All-Big Ten second team honors at Minnesota, she was OK with that.

Willie Taylor, her high school coach, has seen her game evolve.

“I think that she’s not as offensive-minded as she was for me or at Minnesota, because for Minnesota and me, she had to be. We needed her to do that,” Taylor said. “But at Indiana, she doesn’t need to.”

Scalia was willing to adapt for a chance at team success. But she also saw it as another challenge. And she doesn’t back down from challenges.

A fierce competitor

Scalia enjoys playing basketball informally, like pickup games or one-on-one.

She’d face any opponent at any time. In high school, she played with an assistant coach, and Taylor had to stop them because it quickly became a physical game.

Scalia regularly accepted one-on-one challenges from Stillwater boys basketball players. And she beat them so often that they stopped asking to play.

Those boys underestimated her, and she took it personally.

“They would just be so confident that they’d beat me, and then it just wouldn’t turn out like that,” Scalia said. “They would just be so surprised. I’d be like, ‘What are you surprised about?'”

She’s always played with that sort of competitiveness. Taylor remembered Scalia’s intensity about winning shooting drills in practice — and how later, simply winning those drills wasn’t enough. She’d take steps back to make it harder, and continue doing so if she kept winning.

She often played with her younger sister, Amber, at home growing up, and those games frequently ended cagey. Whoever lost those games would storm back inside, and they wouldn’t talk for the rest of the night.

Taylor often began practices by pairing up the players to go one-on-one. And during Sara’s senior year, he regularly matched her up against Amber, then a freshman.

Taylor found it amusing. Peter, not so much.

“I’d say, ‘Willie! You’re going to have Sara kill Amber. Not on the court, but like physically kill her. If Amber scores on Sara, she’s going to want to tackle her,'” Peter said. “Willie laughed, he thought it was so funny. I’m like, ‘Yeah, Willie, it’s really funny, until they get home and everybody’s not talking to each other because they’re all afraid of Sara.'”

Scalia’s fire is usually internal, especially in games.

In her senior year at Stillwater, she helped the Ponies reach the state championship game against Hopkins High School. That team, led by future UConn star Paige Bueckers, featured several more future Division I players than Stillwater had.

Taylor didn’t think his team would win. But he knew they had a chance because of Scalia.

Hopkins won comfortably, even with Bueckers battling illness. But Scalia led her underdog squad to a halftime lead, and refused to succumb until there was no other option.

Peter recalled another game, against a rival that beat Stillwater by holding Sara to less than her scoring average for the season. And opposing players boasted about it on social media after the game.

He knew she’d remember that.

“The next time we played that team, at home, I’m thinking, ‘This is a revenge game for Sara,'” Peter said. “She went out and scored like 37 on them. After the game I was like, ‘Sara, I think you had a little revenge on your mind, huh?’ And she shook her head, like, ‘Yeah.'”

Lethal outside shooting developed early

Scalia started playing basketball, basically, as soon as she could walk.

Peter played in a men’s league when she was a toddler, and she never missed one of his games. During every timeout, she’d run on the court and shoot until the game resumed.

Scalia wasn’t a one-sport athlete — she played softball growing up, and ran track at Stillwater. But basketball was her passion from a young age. And she rapidly improved.

She broke her right arm in elementary school, and sported a cast for several months. But rather than stop playing, Scalia worked on her left hand. She practiced dribbling on her hardwood kitchen floors before the injury, and she continued doing so left-handed.

That later paid dividends.

“You don’t want to promote breaking their arm, but she developed going left as good as going right,” Peter said. “She was still dribbling with that left hand. If she wanted to shoot, she’d use her right hand as a guide hand, and she actually became a fairly decent midrange shooter with her left hand.”

Scalia’s biggest on-court weapon, her 3-point shot, came along earlier than it does for most.

She and her dad regularly played at a local health club when she was younger. And she was shooting threes as early as second grade. Peter recalled many instances from that period when Sara was shooting 3-pointers, while another father with a girl twice Sara’s size stood under the basket struggling with simpler shots.

The other dad stopped — several times, and approached Peter.

“Is this normal?”

“You’re not the first person that’s done this. But I’d say it’s not normal that a second grader is shooting 3-pointers,” Peter said, laughing.

“I’m trying to teach my daughter how to shoot a layup, and she’s in fifth or sixth grade,” the other dad replied.

In those moments, all Peter could do is reassure the other father that Sara’s skill level was abnormally high for her age and to not let that discourage them.

Those early days laid the groundwork for a player who became a prolific outside shooter in high school and college. By the time she got to Stillwater, Scalia was already lethal from beyond the arc. Taylor knew she’d be a Division I player when she was in eighth grade.

And Scalia’s shot only got better as she got older and stronger. Her work ethic and competitiveness drove her to develop it further and extend her range.

“In games, other coaches said to me, ‘Why do you let her shoot so far out?’ Because Sara would step two steps over halfcourt and let them go,” Taylor said. “And my answer was, ‘Because she makes them.'”

Athletic genes

Scalia grew up in an athletic household. All five family members played college sports.

Peter played basketball at Centenary College in Louisiana, a Division I program at the time. Sara’s mother, Sheri, played volleyball and softball at Minnesota-Duluth. Amber is currently a freshman playing basketball at the University of St. Thomas. Sara’s older sister, Taylor, played Division III volleyball at Wisconsin-Eau Claire from 2017 through 2021.

Unsurprisingly, Sara isn’t the only competitive person in that family.

“We all had a competitive mindset. I’d say me and my little sister, specifically, we always kind of went at it in basketball,” Sara said. “Our house was just full of sports.”

But it wasn’t only basketball that fueled the Scalias’ fire.

They had a pool table, which led to many battles. Coach Taylor recalled one visit when he played with Peter, and it ended poorly.

“I take pride in being a good pool player,” Taylor said. “You don’t want to play her dad in anything. He whooped me so bad, I had a tear coming out of one eye.”

From left: Taylor Scalia, Sherri Scalia, Amber Scalia, Peter Scalia, Sara Scalia. (Photo submitted by Peter Scalia)

Any sort of family game night at the Scalia house risked a fight or an argument.

And that often happened. Sara and her sisters, though not exactly the same, share a love for winning. And Peter can also get similarly competitive.

“The only person that would try and keep everyone calm was my mom. She’d be like, ‘It’s not that deep,’ or ‘It’s not that serious.’ She tried to keep everyone from fighting,” Sara said. “My dad’s pretty competitive. Eventually, he would be like, ‘It’s fine, whatever.’ But that’s just kind of how we are.”

Sara was close with her sisters. She liked the dynamic of looking up to Taylor and having Amber look up to her. She spent one season with each of them as basketball teammates at Stillwater, though those seasons were entirely different.

Sara played with Taylor when she was in eighth grade, and she was still more focused on her travel team. She played with Amber on the state runner-up team.

But while Sara enjoyed being the middle child, it caused some concerns for Peter. He saw how Taylor and Amber fit the typical mold for an oldest or youngest daughter, and Sara sometimes exhibited “middle child” behavior, though she didn’t truly have middle child syndrome.

“(Taylor) was the mother hen. (Amber), she’s more of the emotional one, she’d sit on your lap, wants to hug and cuddle. And Sara wasn’t that way, as the middle kid,” Peter said. “I always worried more about Sara. She was just a unique kid.”

Soft spoken

Scalia’s on-court stoicism is a point of personal pride.

It’s not something she does intentionally. Scalia just gets extremely locked in when she’s playing basketball, whether it’s a game or a practice.

“I’m just really focused. I guess it’s a good thing,” Scalia said. “I’m more focused on the game and playing.”

When she’s on the bench, she’ll sometimes join in group celebrations for big plays. But it’s rare to see her celebrate on the court.

During IU’s mid-February home win over Iowa, Scalia hit a 3-pointer over Caitlin Clark in the second quarter. After the ball went in, she glared at the crowd to her left, which was going nuts.

That’s as much emotion as she’ll typically show on the court.

“I’ve never really shown a lot of emotion. A lot of people have told me that. But I don’t really notice in the moment,” Scalia said. “I guess it’s just kind of who I am when I’m on the court, just focused on playing the game and winning.”

Photo credit IU Athletics

Scalia is naturally introverted. When she was in high school, and she took college recruiting calls, Peter wouldn’t see or hear much from the other room. She’d stay quiet while the coaches spoke, and mainly gave short yes or no answers.

It’s often the same way on the court. When she came to IU, Peter advised her to leave her comfort zone, knowing how the Hoosiers emphasize defense and rely on communication for it.

“Sara’s very quiet,” Moren said. “On my drive home last night, I thought to myself, ‘I’m not even sure I heard her voice today in practice.’ And I’m not sure that’s a good thing. But she’s very much an introvert. She’s very similar to Grace Berger in that sense. I do think she has sort of a witty personality that shows up off the floor.”

A heady personality

Scalia has many understated quirks.

She likes to read books. Her reading material is typically related to sports, and it’s often specific topics to help with the mental side of basketball. She’s currently working through “Mind Gym: An Athlete’s Guide to Inner Excellence” by Gary Mack.

Whenever her family went to an amusement park, Sara never went on the rides. She only wanted to play the games — perhaps a further example of her love for competition.

She’s very superstitious. If she has a good game, Peter will find the text he sent her beforehand and send it again for her next game. And Sara responds the same.

The superstitions also shape her pregame routine.

“I’ve got to do the same thing before each game,” she said. “But I don’t know if I can share it though. It’s got to be a secret.”

Scalia is also known for wearing hats.

It almost borders on addiction. She has over 100 hats. They aren’t something she collects, but she “just keeps buying hats.”

She isn’t brand-specific with the hats, nor team-specific. She has photos on Instagram wearing hats for several different teams — in the same post. Scalia has sometimes bought hats because she thought they looked cool, without realizing what team the hat represents — and later faced awkward interactions with passersby who asked if she was a fan.

During this season, Scalia’s apartment suffered water damage. When she arrived on scene, the first thing she went in and retrieved were her hats.

“That gives you a sense of Sara and the things that are important to Sara,” Moren said. “And that’s her hatwear.”

The hats go along with the thick headbands she wears while playing. Scalia said thinner headbands — like what Berger and Parrish wear — would fall off her head too easily. But she mainly wears the thicker headband because she likes the look. It’s become another superstition.

A change in fortunes

Scalia went 38-44 in three seasons at Minnesota. She received individual accolades, but she wanted to win.

She’s found that with IU. This season has been a different basketball experience than she was used to in Minneapolis.

“Being on the No. 2 team in the country, it’s been really cool and special,” Scalia said. “This team’s ability to play how we’ve been playing and win against a lot of ranked teams, it’s really fun. We’ve still got a long way to go, but to end the regular season, there’s not much to complain about.”

Taylor has coached many future Division I players in his 30-plus years coaching girls basketball in Minnesota. He’s developed Miss Basketball winners and finalists, and he’s had former players go on to play in the NCAA Tournament and have successful college careers.

But he’s never had a player reach the Final Four. Scalia may have a better chance at getting there with Indiana than anyone else Taylor has coached. He said that would be special for him to see.

“I’ve coached a lot of good players,” Taylor said. “And I’ll tell you what: Sara can compete with any of them.”

It’s been a change for Scalia’s family, as well, to watch a team this successful.

Peter spent a lot of time helping Sara think through the decision to transfer, ensuring she fully knew what she was doing. Some in Minnesota blamed him and Taylor, saying they told her to abandon the Gophers. But Peter asserted it was solely Sara’s decision.

He saw IU move expeditiously to recruit her — after he and Sara met with Gophers staff and administration to enter the portal, Box called him before he got back to Stillwater. And he saw IU make her feel wanted, like the missing piece to the puzzle. It won both Scalias over.

And despite the difference in roles and usage, Sara told her dad she wouldn’t change anything.

“We’ve talked about, ‘This is what you wanted. This is a great team, it’s a great experience,'” Peter said. “She goes, ‘I have no regrets. I’m having a lot more fun, I love this team. This is what I dreamed of when I went to college to play basketball.'”

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