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Maturity, teamwork, defense put Indiana in rarified territory

Mackenzie Holmes. Indiana Athletics photo.
Mackenzie Holmes. Indiana Athletics photo.

Indiana has been climbing the last few years, but this season, they have arrived.

Last week they were ranked No. 2 in the AP top 25 poll – the highest in program history. At 22-1 and a Big Ten-leading 13-1, they have beaten five top-ten teams, and eight ranked teams.

By comparison, undefeated No. 1 South Carolina has played just three ranked teams and No. 3 LSU, who was also unbeaten until falling to the Gamecocks yesterday, has played two ranked teams.

So, why aren’t the Hoosiers getting the shine that others in the rankings are getting? It isn’t as though they snuck up on this lofty ranking; their first top-25 win was in December.

But as far as the national media is concerned, the Big 10 has been all about Iowa and Caitlin Clark, or Ohio State and its stellar core. Yet, Indiana has beaten both teams in the last two weeks, by nine and 13 points, respectively.

The Hoosiers are a mature, disciplined, balanced, tough, and calm group of players. Nobody overwhelms opponents more with their outstanding athleticism (which is not to say they aren’t superb athletes). They play an up-tempo but controlled game of basketball, focus on being patient enough to defend as a group for a full 30 seconds, and they will pass up a good shot for two more passes and a great one.

Coach Teri Moren sums it up: “You have to watch them play to understand.”

Indiana handles business in many ways that are not measured in a box score. Their defense exhibits superb communication with hedges, switches, and help that often looks almost choreographed.

The offense moves the ball crisply, side-to-side, inside-to-outside. Players move nearly constantly, with very few “standing around” moments. And this team of unselfish players seem to have an instinct for finding the one who can hoist the best shot, rather than settling for an OK shot from someone else.

Perhaps most impressive, the Hoosiers play with calm confidence. Against the Buckeyes – a pressing team that forces 21 turnovers a game – they shredded the press by maintaining spacing, reversing the ball, and getting it to the middle of the court, never allowing their opponents to catch the ball-handler between the sideline and the half-court line. They did not allow the press to speed them up, but either made the open pass for a layup, or pulled it back to run offense. They turned the ball over just 12 times.

“I don’t know that I’ve had a more mature team, and a team when it’s go-time, they answer the bell,” Moren said. “[If] they get down early, you see us climb back, they don’t panic. They don’t blink. It’s like, ‘let’s fix it.’”

“And ‘let’s figure out how we can get in the driver’s seat.’ And then ‘how we can keep our foot on the pedal and close this thing out.’ They’re kind of methodical in that way of thinking: ‘this is what we have to do.’”

That composed and methodical approach includes protecting the ball, and sharing it on offense. Of the eight regulars, only forward Mackenzie Holmes has more turnovers than assists. Guards Grace Berger, Yarden Garzon and Chloe Moore-McNeil each have more than 80 assists on the year, and the team averages an assist on 61 percent of their buckets. They average just 13 turnovers a game.

Indiana reached the Elite Eight in 2021 and the Sweet Sixteen last season. This year’s group has even higher expectations, and seems poised to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, with an excellent chance to compete in the Final Four in Dallas.

“This is a different team,” Moren said after the Iowa win on Thursday. “We’re better.”

“We’re better and tougher defensively. We have more pieces on the outside. We’re bigger on the perimeter. We’ve added more scoring power with (transfer) Sydney [Parrish], Yarden and Sara [Scalia].  When you have floor spacers the way we have, things open up inside.”

Opening up the inside means more opportunities for All-American and Player of the Year candidate Holmes. Healthy this season after nagging knee issues last year, the 6-3 senior is among the best centers in the country, shooting 70 percent from the field (second in the nation), averaging 22.1 points and 7.6 rebounds per game.

“She’s kind of a throwback gem,” Moren says. “She has tremendous footwork, has extra soft hands, can score in a variety of ways”

“She is the ultimate team player. She requires a double team every night. You know, she has a quick, quick hit, in terms of how she gets around players and how she can step through players and make plays that normal post players can’t make in small spaces.”

Holmes also is an outstanding defender, whose strength, and ability to hold her arms straight up, protect the paint. Led by Holmes, Indiana held Hawkeye post Monica Czinano, who averages 17.8 points, to six points on 3-6 shooting. Holmes has 42 blocks on the season – tops in the Big Ten.

On the other side of the ball, Holmes torched Iowa for 24 points on 10-17 field goals. She is not static in the post, however, frequently flashing to the arc on help defense, and recovering to guard the lane.

Grace Berger. Indiana Athletics photo.

Berger, playing her fifth season in Bloomington, is the acknowledged leader of this group. Her toughness, poise under pressure, ability to drive to the basket, and her superb conditioning all contribute to the culture of the team, who follow her lead.

As she plays, the intensity shows in Berger’s eyes, and in her focus on both sides of the ball. She does not, however, do a lot of shouting.

“I’m really quiet,” she said. “I’m introverted, so I’m not going to be the vocal leader. But I also realize that I’ve been here for five years, I’ve played some really big games, I’ve played under coach Moren for a long time. So I think once I step in between the lines, I am modeling for the younger kids and transfers, through my actions, through giving 100 percent every single day, through coming into the gym extra. And, just how I carry myself throughout the game.”

She averages 50 percent shooting as a guard, and while her scoring average is just 12.3 points per game, those points more often than not come when her team needs them most.

Berger’s situational awareness was never on better display than in last week’s close game against the Hawkeyes, a team that defeated them three times last season. Berger scored a season-high 26 points on 10-20 shooting, grabbed nine rebounds and dished a team-high six assists.

“I’ve had the pleasure of coaching her long enough to know when she’s sort of in that zone,” Moren said after that performance. “Where she has a willingness about her to try to take over, not just take over, but really, really will her team to a victory.”

Berger could see the potential of this team when she chose to return for a “bonus” fifth year.

“Last year we had some thing’s not go our way with Mackenzie’s injury and what not, that kept us from potentially winning the championship,” she said. “And I realized how much potential we’d have for this next year.”

“So it was an opportunity I didn’t want to pass up; to come back to get one more chance to achieve my goal of winning a championship at Indiana. Once we saw some of those transfers commit to us, I knew how talented all of them were.”

Berger saw her hunch pay off.

“You never know how pieces are going to gel together – especially in the preseason,” she said. “But I think myself and coach Moren and some of the returners had a pretty good idea – especially once we started getting the chance to play with them some. We gelled together pretty nicely, and could see that we had the chance to be better even than we have been in the past.”

The transfers Berger cited include 5-10 senior Scalia, Minnesota’s leading scorer last season, who has averaged 9.2 points this year, mostly coming off the bench. Nearly half of her shot attempts are from beyond the arc, at a .324 pace. In the last six games, however, she is 10-22 from outside.

Parrish, a junior transfer from Oregon, has made the most of her opportunities with the cream and crimson, averaging 12.9 points – double her average for the Ducks – and nearly six boards, shooting .381 on threes. At 6-2 she is a difficult match-up on offense, and part of Indiana’s big defensive presence on the perimeter.

Then there is the fantastic 6-3 freshman Garzon who came from Israel, stepped onto campus and into the starting lineup. She has a maturity beyond her years – partly from her experience on the Israeli national team.

Yarden Garzon. Indiana Athletics photo.

Garzon has been the best of the three new players, all of them perimeter threats. She averages over two made threes per game, and hits just shy of 50 percent of her attempts. She has averaged 11.8 points per game, along with 4.8 boards. She also has 21 blocks and 21 steals on the season.

Garzon is regularly improving her overall skillset, rising to meet each additional responsibility she is given. Against then-No. 2 Ohio State, Cody MacMahon had torched the Hoosiers defense in the first half. Moren switched the defensive assignment to Garzon after the intermission, and she nearly shut MacMahon down for the final 20 minutes.

“Yarden is so good when it comes to specifics, like ‘you’ve got to be able to do this for us,’” Moren said. “’You’ve got to be able to take away [McMahon’s] right hand’ in the second half. And she did, so it was just more of a ‘we got it.’”

The remaining starter is 5-11 junior Moore-McNeil, in her first starting role. When Berger missed eight games with a knee injury, Moore-McNeil was forced into point guard duties, and the Hoosiers just kept on winning. She has settled into that role, allowing Berger more time at the two, though they share point duties. Moore-McNeil leads the team in assists with 117, and just 36 turnovers.

She also gets the daily assignment of guarding the best opposing guard, and has excelled in that role all season.

Going forward, the road for the Hoosiers is among the most difficult in the nation. Three of their remaining conference games are against ranked teams: a road game against No. 13 Ohio State tonight and a home game with No. 12 Michigan Thursday will start things off, and a rematch with the Hawkeyes will go down Feb. 26.

Indiana has beaten them all this year, but it has been a long season, and they have a very short bench, with just six players logging nearly all the minutes. Without care, exhaustion could set in, with harsh consequences.

Moren is aware of the issue, and is planning for it.

“Probably the last four or five years we’ve played with a short bench,” she said, “and I feel like we have a very durable group.”

“But we’ve also tried to lessen their reps, lessen the practice time, in understanding that that these kids are playing a lot of minutes. At this point, it’s more about the preparation, because we’re a team that relies so much on our defense, our mental preparation is most important, and maybe a little bit different than a lot of other teams.”

In the latest NCAA “reveal,” Indiana is a No. 1 seed. Perhaps that, and the win over Iowa, will wake up the national press a little bit. Moren would like that, but won’t fret over her team’s lack of notoriety.

“If the national media doesn’t want to give us attention, we can’t get caught up in that,” she said. “You know, it’s unfortunate that we talk about the same teams year in and year out, the same players year in and year out.”

“And it’s just unfortunate because there’s so many really, really good basketball players out there. And programs – us included – don’t get the attention, and I don’t know if that’s being lazy.”

It is a combination of laziness, deadlines, and the group-think among sports writers (shared with our society as a whole) that keeps teams as good as the Hoosiers hidden away.

Indiana, however, is not going to fret about what others write about their team.

Teri Moren, Indiana Athletics photo.

“We have goals, you guys know that,” Moren said. “Our road is difficult, but we’re up for the challenge.”

“As I said to these guys, ‘we are writing a story right now – this group is – and we control our destiny.’ So my charge to our team is not to let anybody else hold the pen. We need to be the ones that are that are going to write this story.”

The Hoosiers tip against the Buckeyes at 7 p.m. ET.

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