“Playing with house money”: Indiana has nothing to lose in Sweet Sixteen matchup against South Carolina

  • 03/29/2024 7:33 am in

Indiana women’s basketball has nothing to lose right now.

Even though they’re playing in the Sweet Sixteen? Yes.

Even though they could lose that game and end their season? Yes.

Even though they’re playing against No. 1-seed South Carolina, who hasn’t lost a game all season? Yes.

Indiana is the underdog. It’s a fact, and there’s no question about it. Few people think the Hoosiers can beat Dawn Staley and her superstar team. Maybe they’re right. But there was a time when some questioned whether the Hoosiers were even strong enough to make it to the Sweet Sixteen. There were doubts about whether or not they would be able to host the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament in Bloomington. Those doubters were proven wrong.

Will they be again proven wrong Friday evening when the Hoosiers and the Gamecocks take the floor? We won’t know the answer until the game is played. The questions about how Mackenzie Holmes and Kamilla Cardoso will match up in the paint, whether Sara Scalia will be able to get hot from the perimeter and whether Indiana’s defense can even put a dent in South Carolina’s scoring won’t be answered until the ball is tipped.

However, one question can be answered: Are the Hoosiers feeling the pressure of facing the best team in women’s college basketball? The answer is no. They have other things they’d instead focus on.

“I think you’ve got to make sure that you can separate the pressure from also — I want our kids to enjoy this, as well,” Teri Moren said Thursday afternoon. “I want them to play with not just enjoyment but joy, and they realize it.”

Indiana isn’t disillusioned. Everyone knows how good South Carolina is. Seven Gamecocks average eight or more points per game, and as a team, they shoot 49 percent from the field and 39 percent from the perimeter. They’re also averaging a point differential of 49.5 in their first two tournament games, beating No. 16-seed Presbyterian 91-36 and No. 8-seed North Carolina 88-41. South Carolina’s bench averages 47 points per game in the NCAA Tournament, thanks to MiLaysia Fulwiley (18.5 ppg) and Chloe Kitts (16.5 ppg).

So, how does Indiana even go about approaching a team like that? In part, by doing what they’ve done all year: scout, practice and prepare. There is a game plan and a strategy. There has to be. Indiana knows the importance of being aggressive and playing smart for the entire game to compete with South Carolina’s high-powered and widespread offense. But at the same time, the Hoosiers are also taking a step back and recognizing what it means to even be in their position.

“Right now, we’re just so grateful to be in this position,” Moren said.

Last year’s round of 32 loss to Miami hung over Indiana’s heads for the last year, as the shocking loss at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall ended a season in which Indiana, who won the Big Ten regular season title, was expected to reach even greater levels of success in the NCAA tournament. Now, with Indiana’s victory over No. 5-seed Oklahoma, the team can put that loss fully behind them. The pressure to make it past that point this season is gone because Indiana’s done it.

The pressure’s off — almost entirely.

“We really don’t feel any pressure at all,” Chloe Moore-McNeil. “We know everybody expects South Carolina to win. They’re a great team, and obviously they’re undefeated. But it’s March Madness, so you kind of have to throw all those things out of the window and just focus on yourself and winning.”

Of course, just because the Hoosiers might not feel the pressure doesn’t mean they don’t want to win. They’re athletes and competitors and want to prove themselves worthy of their position. The key is to do it with the right attitude, and it seems as though they are.

“Yes, we’re the underdog, but I think everybody else except for South Carolina right now is the underdog,” Moren said. “I do think there is an aspect of that that you can use it to your advantage. You’re playing with house money. You have nothing to lose.”

There’s also a different kind of motivation that comes with being such an underdog that some people don’t even think you have a real chance of winning, and Moren hopes her team uses that to fuel them. They also have experience and know what winning and losing at this level is like.

Chloe Moore-McNeil and Mackenzie Holmes were on the team when they advanced to the Elite Eight in 2021 and lost in the Sweet Sixteen in 2022. Now, as arguably the two most prominent leaders on the team, they can pass down the lessons they learned to the rest of their teammates.

“We’re grateful that we have that type of experience,” Moore-McNeil said. “(It’s about) staying level headed and being confident within ourselves and our capabilities and just playing IU basketball.”

(Photo credit: IU Athletics)

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