The Tests have popped up in various games throughout the year, one after another throughout the season. Indiana passed them all calmly and methodically.
IU started the year by backing three players who weren’t in the program a year ago, which is significant given short rotation coaches Teri Moren. Moren questioned the Hoosiers’ resilience in the new look until an early win over Tennessee allayed those concerns.
After point guard Grace Berger went down in Las Vegas with a knee injury, Indiana went 7-1 without his experienced ball handler. Within the success was a litany of minor obstacles – dealing with pressure defense without salvors, maintaining composure at the end of tight games – that this particular squad was dealing with for the first time.
It all led to an 18-1 start, the best in the program’s history. The Hoosiers have beaten three ranked teams in their last four games, two of them away. Although relatively new to each other, it’s an experienced team. Five of the six players who see the floor for at least 27 minutes per game are juniors or older. Not much more IU can be detected until March, but Thursday presents another big challenge in the form of Ohio State.
The no. 2 Buckeyes are tied 8-1 with Indiana at the top of the Big Ten. They are the only team in the conference to rank higher nationally. A win for the Hoosiers would put them both in the driver’s seat for the regular-season title and further establish themselves as legitimate contenders for the national championship, not that Moren is interested in thinking the big picture at this point.
“These kids understand what they are playing for. I said so,” she said. “I’ve talked about their maturity and their experience and that’s something you have to rely on, but for us it starts at the top. We spend very little time reflecting on what we have just done and what we have been able to achieve and/or whether we are winning or falling short. We have to keep going because it’s such a quick turnaround.”
The Hoosiers returned from Ann Arbor around 2 a.m. Monday after their win against Michigan. Hours later, they were watching the movie from the night before. Then it went to Ohio State like any other game.
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OSU, coming off its first loss of the season against Iowa on Monday, is thriving in one of the few areas where IU is struggling. Without Berger, Penn State, Michigan State and Nebraska pressed the Hoosiers, accelerating their offense and forcing them to rush and generate turnovers. IU’s only loss was a 21 giveaway performance at MSU.
Ohio State squeezes every opponent and forces 22.5 turnovers per game.
In the loss, Indiana had no bergers, a reassuring presence that doesn’t get flustered with the ball in her hands. Turnovers haven’t been as much of an issue since her return, and she will not only play a key role in leading Indiana’s offense against an aggressive opponent, but also limiting errors to prevent easy baskets at the other end.
“Your press is what ignites it. That’s what drives them,” Moren said. “Not to take anything away from them defensively, but I think they’re less interested — I think their press is what they’re relying on to get those turnovers, to get those layups. They don’t care that much about the half court once you put it on the half court. Your pressure is not as great as in court.”
Indiana has faced a ranked team five times this season. The Hoosiers have emerged victorious five times. But Ohio State is one of their first opponents with an equally impressive resume. The Buckeyes had only lost on a cold night of shooting and Caitlin Clark’s triple-double crushed them against Iowa.
And in that sense, Thursday is an opportunity for Indiana. IU has done almost everything it can up to this point in the season, but when a team is as dominant as the Hoosiers, progress comes in degrees.
It may consist of beating one of the few teams polled to be superior, a team whose strength overlaps with one of IU’s few weaknesses. Indiana was undoubtedly one of the best teams in the country in 19 games. A win at Ohio State would move the needle forward, even though there’s only so much further to go now.
“To be the best you have to beat the best and if you want to win championships you have to win them all or go after them all,” Moren said. “We just managed to do one game at a time. We always do. The pressure is on us. It’s been a privilege over the past few years, the pressure that’s been on this program and this team. Our children have already accepted that. I don’t think if you asked them they would swap places with anyone in the country or any of these other conferences to be in the Big Ten and represent the Big Ten.”