It was a time to dance, to hug, to cry.
Of course, it was.
There had never been a moment like this in Indiana women’s basketball history.
From the record Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall-crowd of 13,007 to the tough-as-nails play, Indiana’s 65-57 victory over Virginia Tech for its first-ever WNIT championship Saturday afternoon sent a statement few predicted three weeks earlier.
The Hoosiers (23-13) are postseason factors … and more might be on the way.
“I’m excited to see what the future will be,” senior guard Tyra Buss said. “They’re in great hands. The freshmen showed so much growth. I’m excited to see them continue to grow, and the newcomers coming in.”
Hoosier freshman Bendu Yeaney was the fourth-quarter difference-maker with nine of her 14 points, but mostly this was a final chance to celebrate seniors Buss and Amanda Cahill, two of the greatest players in school history, regardless of gender.
They won a program senior-class record 82 victories. Buss set women’s records with 2,364 points, 633 free throws, 574 assists and 293 steals.
Cahill, who had 12 points and five rebounds on Saturday, ranks fourth with 1,884 points and second with 1,115 rebounds.
But the biggest thing, they said, was ending their careers with a victory.
“It’s a very bitter-sweet feeling,” Cahill said. “We’re honored to go out on a win, but it’s sad to take off this jersey.”
Added Buss: “It couldn’t have ended any better.”
Or, as Yeaney said, “It means everything. We wanted to win a championship for them. We’re happy to accomplish our goal.”
Added Virginia Tech coach Kenny Brooks: “They sent their seniors out the right way.”
Buss and Cahill had spent the last four years representing all that’s right with IU athletics – from their play to their classroom achievement (both made the Big Ten all-academic team; Cahill was an academic All-American) to the way they made a difference in the community.
“I don’t know if there are any words that are sufficient because they’ve meant so much,” Moren said. “You want your best players to be your hardest workers. They taught (their teammates) about the work that goes into being special.
“They’re great students and athletes. They’re great ambassadors of this university. They will go down as being among the very best (in school history).”
A potential blowout turned cliffhanger when Indiana lost its third-quarter shooting touch. An 11-point lead became a one-point deficit with 10 minutes remaining.
As it turned out, the Hoosiers had the Hokies right where they wanted them.
Yeaney got hot; Buss and Cahill made plays; the sixth-largest crowd in WNIT history generated energy; and the Hoosiers made good on their post-tourney promise to win a championship.
“We struggled in the third quarter,” Moren said, “and then we got it going. We showed a tremendous fight and resilience.”
IU attacked with defense, as it had the entire postseason. Virginia Tech (23-14) was rattled enough to have six first-quarter turnovers against one assist. It finished with 17 turnovers IU converted into 20 points.
Five of the Hoosiers’ six WNIT opponents scored less than 60 points.
“We ran into a buzz saw,” Brooks said. “If anyone didn’t think we or Indiana were NCAA tourney-quality teams, we put that to rest with our (tournament) runs.
“Give it to Hoosier Nation. They came out in full force. That was awesome. I played against a Coach Knight team (while Brooks was at James Madison in the early 1990s) and I don’t remember the crowd being that loud.”
What was the difference?
Brooks pointed to Buss, the WNIT MVP, who totaled 16 points and five rebounds in 40 non-stop minutes.
“When you can put the ball into the hands of kid like that,” it’s special,” he said. “It’s not just she can score, she can command.”
Indiana’s season lasted longer than perennial powerhouse Connecticut’s, and if it came from WNIT reality rather than NCAA tourney opportunity, that misses the point, which is these Hoosiers generated a buzz that could forever alter the program.
The key — sustained future success, including the NCAA tourney.
Prospects are promising, starting with returning starters Yeaney, junior forward Kym Royster and freshmen guard Jaelynn Penn, who combined to average 29 points and 16 rebounds this season.
By the end of the season, Penn and Yeaney played well beyond their years. Penn had a double-double on Saturday with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever coached freshmen who are more confident (than Yeaney and Penn),” Moren said. “They don’t ever get down or discouraged. If anything, they get more ticked off and want to do better, and most of the time something good happens. It’s a special thing.”
Next season the Hoosiers will add transfers Brenna Wise from Pitt and Ali Patberg from Notre Dame. Patberg is the first Indiana Miss Basketball to play for the Hoosiers. They’ve signed three incoming freshmen — Louisville’s Grace Berger, Georgia’s Chanel Wilson and Latvia’s Aleksa Gulbe.
“We’re in a situation now of we want more,” Moren said. “We have so much to offer. We’ll continue to get those high-level (recruits).
“We have a lot of work ahead of us. We have a great foundation, and the foundation came from those two kids (Cahill and Buss).”
How special was the record-breaking crowd?
When Moren and her family arrived at Assembly Hall Saturday afternoon and saw fans lined up in a manner only previously seen for significant men’s games, she said, “This is real. This will be an exciting afternoon for us.”
And after excitement produced victory:
“Winning is hard,” she said. “We have a great group. They never gave in. They continued to work. That’s what was so special. Such an enjoyable group to coach.”
Both teams struggled offensively early. IU was 2-for-8 from the field to Virginia Tech’s 1-for-8. The Hoosiers led 17-13 after the first quarter behind Buss’ six points.
Virginia Tech was in range thanks to guard Taylor Emery’s seven points. She finished with a game-high 23.
The Hoosiers kept up the pressure and ended the half on a 9-3 run for a 36-27 halftime lead.
IU shot ahead 40-29. Virginia Tech shot back to end the quarter with a 44-43 lead. The Hoosiers scored just one point in the final six-plus minutes.
She scored the quarter’s first four points, then snapped IU’s 0-for-13 three-point shooting drought with a basket behind the arc. Cahill added a three-pointer of her own less than a minute later. The Hoosiers surged ahead by nine.
Virginia Tech cranked up the full-court defensive pressure trying to get the Hoosiers to crack.
It didn’t happen.
The Hoosiers were WNIT champs.
When it was over, before the net cutting began, Moren had a message for the crowd:
“This is how we started with Hoosier Hysteria. I didn’t know what would happen this season. All that mattered were players that were behind me.
“This has been a six-game series for us. We had a record crowd. We couldn’t have done it without you. You are our energy We are so grateful and humbled by your presence.
“You have sent Tyra and Amanda (to a win) in their last game. We have been blessed by these young ladies. What an impact they have made.”
But then, that was true of all the Hoosiers.
And so it was a time to dance, to hug, to cry.
“We wanted to make an impact on this program,” Buss said. “Our goal was to have some people in the upper deck — and there was.
“To end the way we did, it was something special.”
It was a time to dance, to hug, to cry.