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Mike Lopresti | | March 23, 2022

After an incredible night in Indiana, the Hoosiers face their toughest challenge yet

Ali Patberg, Indiana prepare for UConn in the Sweet 16

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – It might be the current mother of all streaks in college basketball: 13 consecutive Final Four trips for the Connecticut women, going back four U.S. presidents. Not even Pat Summitt ever had more than four.

Next weekend decides if it will be 14 in a row. So come visit the next team that must try to stop it . . .

Let’s see, big crowd entering, lots of people in candy-striped red and white pants, walking through the main lobby past the statues of the unbeaten 1976 national champions. Yeah, this must be the place.

LIVE UPDATES: Click here to follow the entire tournament from start to finish

Indiana’s Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall is a college basketball hotspot. That goes for either gender these days, and Monday night was another example, when the Hoosier women slipped by Princeton 56-55 to head for the Sweet 16. The program that had never been there in the first 27 years of the 64-team format has now made it twice in a row. The team that once rarely raised a crowd, on this night drew 9,627. Good thing the student body just got back from spring break.

How was Florida? Let’s go see the women whip Princeton.

Now that the Hoosiers have won — barely — this is their grand prize: Yes, it’s an all-expense trip to Bridgeport, Conn. To play Connecticut. But we can get to that in a minute.

Going by seedings, Monday was supposed to be Kentucky vs. Indiana in Assembly Hall. That’s more than the men can do. Those two programs can’t agree to play anywhere. But Princeton changed the narrative by upsetting Kentucky on Saturday, and nearly did it to Indiana, coming from 14 points down to take a one-point lead with 1:12 to go. But the Hoosiers grabbed it back with graduate student Grace Berger doing the scoring honors in the last minute. Coach Teri Moren knew just who she wanted with the ball at such a moment. Why?

“Because she’s Grace.”

It was the latest proof of a program on the move.

Indiana was in the Elite Eight last March. First time ever.

The Hoosiers were in the Big Ten championship game this season. First time in 20 years.

They had never earned the right to host the first and second rounds. They have now.

The program has eight NCAA Tournament victories in its history. Five have come the past two years.

The 24-8 record had to pass through what was clearly a vintage Big Ten, since four of the members are in the Sweet 16. Indiana beat two during the season – Maryland and Ohio State. The Hoosiers lost to Michigan.

THE BRACKET: Here's the 2022 women's basketball tournament bracket

They found a way to win Monday like the veterans they are. Berger, who said she does the same pre-game ball-handling drills now that she did when she was seven. Super-super-senior Ali Patberg, who is 25 years old and in her seventh season in college. Her fifth birthday was 9/11. Grad student Nicole Cardano-Hillary at guard. Senior finance major Aleksa Gulbe. Junior Mackenzie Holmes. All average in double figures. Together, they have played 21 seasons of college basketball.

So it was quite the night in Bloomington. As the Hoosiers lined up to make one last defensive stand, protecting a lead in the final seconds, the scoreboard showed football coach Tom Allen yelling encouragement near courtside – no doubt hoping this one ended up better for Indiana than most of his games did last fall. Afterward, the players raced into the stands to cavort with their fellow students. “I ran over there and I was like, screw it, I’m going to run up and I’m going to high-five them and make them feel like they are part of this victory, because they are,” Holmes said.

Assembly Hall has seen a lot, from three national men’s champions to Knight’s infamous thrown chair. But never a women’s basketball moment quite like this.

“It is both powerful and stressful because you as a coach don’t want it to end either,” Moren said of having several players with so much time invested in college basketball. “We think it’s a privilege to have the pressure that we have. You rely on your vets and your experience and you just try to will them to the finish line.

“We’ve been together a lot. We kind of like each other, so we want to keep this thing going as long as we can.”

That brings up what’s next.

True, the Bridgeport regional is not officially a home game for Connecticut, but who’s anyone kidding? This is like swimming with a shark in a fish pond. Not its natural habitat but would you want to do it?

The Huskies got there by beating UCF 52-47 Monday in an unsightly swatch of basketball that saw Connecticut shoot 29 percent and end with only one more field goal than turnover.

“I can honestly say that, given the kind of season we’ve had, I thought I’d pretty much seen it all. But this was a rather new experience for me,” Geno Auriemma said. “I have a certain vision of how the game is played, and for 30-some years we played the game that way. Tonight, we didn’t play the game that way, not even close.”

KEEP UP: The entire women's basketball tournament scoreboard

That might be ominous news for the Hoosiers. Surely the Huskies won’t shoot like that two games in a row.

Indiana figures to take what comes. The Hoosiers played Stanford earlier to three points, Plus, Berger said, “We’ve played in what I think is the best conference in the country, so we’ve seen pretty much everything.”

But they haven’t seen Connecticut in its own state, yet.

“That’s completely out of our control,” Moren said “We’ve had to deal with a lot of those moments that were completely out of our control. We had to play five Big Ten games in 10 days. It was hard. So we’ve been through hard before."

Saturday should qualify.

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