Before the first water bottles were filled, the Indiana women’s basketball team knew it would hardly be drenched this season with experienced options.
Sure, the roster had two top-flight stalwart seniors in Tyra Buss and Amanda Cahill, but with a fleet of players having graduated, head coach Teri Moren had no choice but to flesh out the lineup with fresh-faced newcomers. There were certainly difficult times along the way, but with the kids catching on and the seniors fulfilling every expectation, the Hoosiers are making a run in the 2018 Postseason WNIT.
Indiana (19-14) will face Purdue (20-13) tonight in Round 3, with tipoff in Bloomington set for 7 p.m. ET. The Hoosiers swept the two previous matchups with the Boilermakers this year, and tonight’s winner will face UC Davis or Kansas State in the quarterfinals.
For Buss and Cahill, their run at IU is drawing to a close, and there’s nothing but honors and accolades in the rear-view mirror. According to Moren, their ability to bring along the freshmen is as impressive as it gets.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been in this situation, to have two (keystone) seniors and then work in so many freshmen. I will say, the staff has been terrific, mentoring these players, and I have to give a lot of credit to the seniors,” said Moren, whose team won eight straight games toward the end of the season and has won its two WNIT games by an average of 22 points. “Inside the locker and onto the floor, they’ve been leading. As a freshman, it can be easy to lose faith if you’re coming up short, and they never allowed them to give in or say it’s OK to use excuses to lose games.
“When your best players are the hardest workers, it’s tough for freshmen to come in and have an off day or not be as engaged as they need to be. That’s not our culture here.”
Buss is the program’s all-time leading scorer with 2,272 points; she’s averaging a preposterous 40 minutes of playing time per game, made possible by Herculean efforts in overtime games (she played every minute of a 4-OT victory against Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament). Cahill averages nearly 16 points and eight rebounds per game, shoots better than 40 percent from 3-point range and is more than essential to Moren’s plans.
They’ve been fortified with freshmen starters Jaelynn Penn (11 points, five rebounds per contest) and Bendu Yeaney (35 minutes per game).
“Coming back this year with only four returners, we knew there would be adversity, but I wanted to be that leader they’d need. We made a trip over the summer, got to play three games in Italy, so we were able to start on our chemistry there,” said Buss, who appears on most every 2018 WNBA mock draft list. “We struggled at the beginning of the year, with a very challenging schedule to get us prepared. We’ve grown together; we are playing our best basketball at the end of the year, which says a lot about this group.
“I couldn’t be more proud, and we feel fortunate to still be playing because a lot of teams didn’t get that opportunity. I trust (the freshmen) to make the right decisions. They love to win, they hate to lose, and it’s been a pleasure to play with them.”
It’s a good thing Moren has had a bunch of game plans to develop these past several weeks, as it’s helping distract her from the cold truth that Buss and Cahill are getting ready to move on. The three of them were certainly deflated at first when there was no bid waiting for the NCAA Tournament, but a day or two of reflection got the Hoosiers reset and revived by the WNIT.
“This group has always been eager; even when we were struggling at the start of Big Ten play, everyone was eager to be at practice and to be together, at a high level. They’ve stayed the course, and now we are in this six-game series …and we are through two rounds,” said Moren, who started at Indiana when Buss and Cahill were freshmen. “I’ve gotten better (about the emotions). Up to Senior Day with Nebraska, I was in denial about the fact they won’t be with us next year. The impact they’ve had – there aren’t two players in the history of women’s basketball here at Indiana who’ve had a bigger impact on our program than those two.
“The biggest thing for me is the way they’ve approached the work every day. There’s not been one day I’ve had to tell Tyra that her effort stinks and she needed to go harder; and with (Cahill), it’s her enthusiasm for the concept of team, and I don’t know that I’ve ever coached a smarter player than Amanda Cahill. Her anticipation, her footwork, seeing things, the stuff you can’t teach. Those are the things I’ll remember.”
Buss’ list of fond memories is already lengthy – in that wild game against Michigan State, a late basket from the Spartans was disallowed, which kept the contest going. Her motor was more than capable of staying at high speed.
“In that Michigan State game, it was great how we stuck together, and the celebration at the end is something I’ll always remember,” Buss said. “After that one overtime, I don’t even remember which one, Shay Colley hit the shot, and I thought at that moment it was lost and I was done. I was very upset. But we kept playing and then made history, and that was really cool to celebrate that with my teammates.
“We’re excited for Purdue, and it’s great that we get to play at home – that’s one of the nice things about the WNIT is we can get home games. We’re looking forward to it, and we will feed off the crowd.”
“We’re well-versed with them, and they are with us. Purdue’s played well on the road (the Boilermakers won at Iowa and Maryland); we will have to play sound defensively, score the ball at a high level, and we are comfortable with what we can expect,” Moren said. “Neither team is deep by any means, so (both teams) have to stay out of foul trouble. It’s been evenly matched, and these are in-state teams that don’t like each other a whole lot.
“This is a good field – we’ll have to get through some good teams to get to the championship game and win the thing. It’s high-level basketball, and you have to have played well to be in it.”