If Ali Patberg had wanted to ride off into the sunset after the 2020-2021 season, no one would have begrudged her.
The Indiana standout had battled through injuries, a transfer, and an unprecedented year that was overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and all its restrictions. Then, to cap it off last March with a Hoosier-first run to the Elite 8 was a triumph.
But ultimately, Patberg decided that not only would it not feel right to leave, but that she had unfinished business to address. She told her coaches and teammates last spring that she would take advantage of the NCAA’s offer of an additional year of eligibility, and return for a seventh season in the fall.
“I love college basketball, the environment it brings, the competition,” Patberg said. “When we found out we could get another year, I kept telling myself I’d wait and see how the year goes. As it progressed, it was so different.”
“I love playing in Assembly Hall. The fan support we get is so unique, and I love the energy we get. That was missing this year. On senior night I couldn’t be with my family on the floor. The experience I’ve had at IU – I didn’t want it to end that way.”
Patberg returns to a team that has four other seniors besides herself, and just two freshmen. Coach Teri Moren said she and her staff were happy to hear of Patberg’s decision to return.
“We’re all really excited about having AP back,” Moren said. “She’s been our leader and will continue to be our leader.”
Patberg’s path to her leadership role was fraught with challenges. She began her college career at Notre Dame, but just prior to her freshman season, she tore her ACL and had to sit out the year. As a sophomore she saw limited action as a reserve, and she transferred to Indiana afterward. Moren said she and her staff had to work with Patberg on and off the court.
“When she arrived in Bloomington she was broken, in terms of her confidence,” Moren said. “Physically, we knew she would repair, so the majority of our staff spent time loving her up as much as possible, and giving her confidence.”
Moren said coaches worked diligently worked with Patberg to develop her game skills, which also bred confidence.
“We spent time building a relationship with her,” Moren said. “That grew into trust, with grew into literally giving her the keys to this program and telling her to lead this team.”
Patberg separated her shoulder in her junior year, and missed three games. But that didn’t stop her from averaging a team-high 15.8 points and 4.8 assists per game. The Hoosiers were rolling in the 2019-2020 season, and were expected to make another deep NCAA Tournament run, as they had the previous spring. Then the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the season, casting the future into uncertainty.
That summer the NCAA granted Patberg a sixth year of eligibility, so she and the team began an unprecedented season in the fall that limited their contact with other teams. Eventually, the isolation got to them and at midseason, their energy lagging, they suffered a brief slump.
“This year was super-challenging for every single player and every single team,” Patberg said. “We did a great job of staying within our own bubble, but it hurt us in a sense halfway through, because we were getting mentally fatigued. We weren’t seeing anyone outside of our team, and we weren’t doing much. We weren’t able to get away from the game at times, like we normally can.”
Patberg said she and her teammates had been too locked in on staying safe from COVID, to the exclusion of everything else.
“We had to dig deep to figure out how to stay strong and get our momentum back,” she said. “We came back together and remembered why we were playing this year, and remembered what our goals were. Once we refocused and realized how grateful and thankful we were to play, we became closer as a unit. And we just kept going from there.”
In the NCAA Tournament’s round of eight Indiana faltered, and lost to Arizona by 13 points. Patberg said avenging that loss was one of her motivators for returning, because the team didn’t play up to its potential.
“We made it to the Elite 8 and there was more we could have done,” she said. “In that game we didn’t play like ourselves. We laid an egg.”
Patberg speaks calmly about the loss, while belies her split personality in and out of basketball: she is easygoing off the court, and ruthless between the lines. Moren said it is a stark contrast.
“She’s a deep thinker, and she’s incredibly intelligent,” Moren said. “She’s a little bit of an introvert, but once she gets to know you, she naturally opens up a little bit more. Get her between the lines, though, and she turns into a different person.”
Moren said Patberg is her own harshest critic.
“She’s incredibly competitive. No one can hold her to a higher standard because she holds herself to such a high standard, to the point where I’m the one to has to tell her to give herself a break and cut herself some slack,” Moren said. “You can trust that when she gets on the floor, all that sweet kindness goes out the door and it becomes about ‘what can I do for my teammates?’ today.”
An in-state native, Patberg’s parents both played basketball. Her father was a high school boy’s coach when she was a child, and she would tag along with him to practices. She quickly became hooked.
“I couldn’t get enough of it – I loved it,” Patberg said.
In the Hoosiers, and in Moren, Patberg has found a match for her hard work ethic.
“Growing up, that’s how I got to where I was, because of how hard I worked to get to the point where I was ready to play DI ball,” Patberg said. “(Moren) works super hard, and you see that day in and day out.”
“As a team, that’s how we approach everything: we’re constantly in the gym. And it’s not just one person – it’s everybody. We’re working toward the same goals and are doing the same things so we can pull together when the days get hard.”
The team’s work has created a strong culture and on-court chemistry.
“We have that bond that a lot of teams don’t have,” Patberg said. “There’s not a time during the season that we aren’t getting in extra reps.”
Moren said Patberg is a classic example of the best player being the hardest worker. Where she is unique, however, is that she remains focused on the task at hand.
“With as much exposure and media attention as Ali gets, none of those accolades are what’s important to her,” Moren said. “She’s not a kid who’s on social media. She doesn’t play the comparison game with other players in our league, or across the country, and that’s unique.”
Moren said what Patberg spends her time on, instead, is building relationships with her fellow Hoosiers.
“The amount of time she’s spent pouring into her teammates – because of that, she’s one of the most-loved leaders we’ve had in our program,” Moren said. “It’s safe to say the team would do anything for Ali.”
Patberg said she is grateful for the extra year, and will focus on one game at a time this season.
“I get an opportunity to play for a team I love, with the teammates and coaches I love, and to try and win a national title,” she said. “I’m excited that I had the opportunity to make a decision.”