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First look at Indiana, Arizona’s Elite Eight opponent

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NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament - Sweet Sixteen - Indiana v North Carolina State Photo by Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

A program a few years removed from a WNIT championship is gunning for its first Final Four berth led by a fiery head coach, an experienced point guard and an aggressive style of play. They hail from a basketball-obsessed campus where hardwood expectations are sky-high and this March, it’s the women—not the men—who are meeting those standards.

This is the Indiana Hoosiers we’re talking about, though the description could aptly apply to their Elite Eight opponent, the Arizona Wildcats. The No. 3 seed Wildcats and No. 4 seed Hoosiers face off Monday at 5 p.m. MST with a Final Four ticket on the line.

Indiana’s spot in the Elite Eight is only a surprise to those who haven’t followed women’s hoops over the last several years. Under head coach Teri Moren, the Hoosiers have won 21 or more games in six straight seasons.

In 2018 they won the WNIT title and followed that up with an NCAA Tournament appearance the next year. Like Arizona, they were poised for a break-through last March until the Covid-19 pandemic cut the season short.

This season, Indiana battled through injuries, pandemic-related postponements and the untimely opt-out of one their top players. IU entered the Big Dance coming off a surprising loss to Michigan State in its first game of the Big Ten Tournament but quickly put that defeat in the rear-view mirror.

The Hoosiers breezed through their first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, topping No. 13 seed VCU 63-32 and No. 12 seed Belmont 70-48 to reach the Sweet 16. On Saturday, they overcame a double-digit first quarter deficit to upset No. 1 seed NC State 73-70 and advance to the Elite Eight.

IU forced the Wolf Pack into 17 turnovers and 16 fouls, playing the aggressor from start to finish.

Indiana’s success begins with Grace Berger, a junior point guard who averages 15.4 points, 6.9 rebounds and 4.6 assists a game. On Saturday she netted a 12-point, 12-rebound double-double.

Berger is the catalyst behind the Hoosiers’ aggressive offense, which averages more than 75 points on 62 field goal attempts a game.

“Offensively we are who we are,” Moren said after the NC State win. “We’re going to try to push the pace. We’re going to try to play fast. We really try to go to our open motion more so tonight than ever, let our kids play with freedom.”

Berger’s backcourt partner, Ali Patberg, is a fifth-senior and Indiana native with a knack for finding the basket. Patberg scored a team-high 17 points against the Wolf Pack. Patberg is Indiana’s most prolific three-point shooter despite shooting under 30% (30-101) from outside.

Nicole Hillary-Cardano rounds out the starting back-court. A senior from Spain, she may be Indiana’s most streaky shooter. She has made four or more field goals in six of the team’s last eight games but also went 1-8 against VCU in the opening round.

Forwards Mackenzie Holmes and Aleska Gulbe anchor Indiana’s front-court. Holmes is the team’s leading scorer and rebounder with 17.7 points and 7.6 boards a game.

Gulbe, meanwhile, has been on a tear this NCAA Tournament. She earned an 11-point, 10-rebound double-double Saturday after grabbing 15 boards against Belmont in the Round of 32.

The key for Holmes and Gulbe Monday will be avoiding foul trouble. After Holmes fouled out with five minutes to go against NC State, the Wolf Pack went on a 10-4 run to cut Indiana’s margin to two.

That leads us to the Hoosiers’ biggest weakness: depth.

Midway through the season IU lost senior guard Jaelynn Penn, who decided to opt out. Hillary-Cardano was promoted to the starting lineup, which left Indiana’s bench without a singe player who averages more than nine minutes a game.

Freshman forward Kiandra Browne has stepped into a sixth-man role lately, including the minutes she played in replace of Holmes at the end of Indiana’s win Saturday. Unfortunately for IU, Browne is playing at less than full health according to her coach.

“We’re not seeing the best Kiandra Browne,” Moren said Saturday. “She’s not moving the way we know she can move. But I tell you what, she’s going to give you every ounce of fight when she comes in.”

For Indiana, the goal Monday will be to play at its usual aggressive pace without wearing down its starting five or falling into foul trouble. If the Hoosiers can upend their traditionally poor three-point shooting go on some offensive runs and force turnovers like they did against NC State, they’ll take Arizona to the wire.