BLOOMINGTON — After a two-week COVID break in late January and an injury to its leading scorer, the Indiana women’s basketball team still finds itself in search of its first Big Ten title in program history.
Whether the No. 7 UI achieves that goal will depend on how well it handles a four-game, eight-day series starting Saturday at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall against Michigan State (3 p.m., Big Ten Network Plus).
The Hoosiers (17-3, 9-1 Big Ten) won for the 12th time in their last 13 games on Wednesday, routing Illinois 93-61 for their third straight win overall. Point guard Ali Patberg scored a season-high 26 points against the Illini, while freshman guard Kaitlin Peterson added a career-high 11 points off the bench.
Due to the COVID break, IU has played two fewer championship games than Michigan, which sits atop the conference at 11-1. The Hoosiers also went nearly a month without leading scorer and starting center Mackenzie Holmes (17.9 ppg), who had knee surgery.
Patberg said solidarity helped IU through the stormy season. The Hoosiers entered the year with all five returning starters from a team that reached the Elite Eight last season.
“Anything thrown at us, we handle well,” Patberg said. “We are a talented group. We worked extremely hard during the off-season, preparing. So we’re ready for anything thrown at us, and we always stick together, and that’s why when adversity hits, we’re ready for it.
IU women’s basketball coach Teri Moren said Illinois’ game was the best her team has seen offensively since Holmes was sidelined. The Hoosiers scored on their first six possessions shooting 57.6 percent from the floor.
“The 15-day layoff for us, we definitely lost some of our — I keep calling it our flow, our rhythm,” Moren said. “But tonight I thought about our performance – we looked like we were starting to find the rhythm with the movement of the ball, the way we shot it, and also because we had 20 assists, which always excites me because it means we share the ball.
Moren said the bonds created by IU’s returning players allowed them to weather adversity throughout the season.
“It’s such a tight-knit group of women,” Moren said. “I think a year ago, success is just a band doing their job in such a humble way. I think they’re really excited about the success that everyone has individually and obviously collectively as a team, and they’re tough. This is one of the toughest groups I’ve had the pleasure of coaching.
That tenacity will be tested again over a four-game, eight-day streak. After Michigan State, IU will play Feb. 14 at Nebraska, then return home to play Feb. 17 against Northwestern and Feb. 20 against No. 25 Iowa, led by Caitlin Clark, the nation’s leading scorer with 27.6 points per match.
“We’ll try to overdo it with the film and have them do as much mental rehearsal as possible, so we can keep them from moving,” Moren said. “Because I believe that here in the next few days we need to have fresh legs and certainly fresh minds. So we will try to deal with that as best we can.
Potential good news for IU could come with the return of Holmes, who started individual drills this week. Moren hasn’t ruled out the possibility of her returning to action before the end of the regular season.
“Everyone is excited about where she is right now in terms of rehab and recovery to be back on the floor soon,” Moren said. “I think you’ll see her sooner rather than later.”