BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP)The Indiana Hoosiers got back to work Friday with a sharp and spirited NCAA Tournament practice.
They’ve been waiting an excruciatingly long time to relish this moment.
Since clinching their first Big Ten regular season title in 40 years on Feb. 19, the top-seeded Hoosiers have played just three games. They were able to rest, rehab and recharge from a brutal conference slate, as well as refocus after losing twice during the final stretch.
“It’s given us great motivation to get back in practice and certainly figure out some of those things we didn’t do well enough, why we lost the games but also it’s been a great time for us to rest,” Indiana coach Teri Moren said. “I don’t know if it’s a silver lining, but I think it’s been good for us to be able to have some extra time off because of the schedule we played.”
The Hoosiers’ top two players, All-American center Mackenzie Holmes and all-conference guard Grace Berger, certainly needed the time off after averaging more than 30 minutes per game.
But it’s not just fatigue: The league’s depth and physical style of play takes its toll on bodies. Plus, Moren acknowledged, some of her players felt ill before Indiana lost 79-75 to Ohio State on March 4.
Everyone looked fine Friday as blaring music and the constant clapping of hands bounced off the Assembly Hall walls during the open portion of practice. They were dancing in the locker room, too.
The risk, of course, is that long breaks can throw off teams and make them stale.
But after finishing the season ranked an all-time best No. 2, earning the school’s first No. 1 seed and being picked by former President Barack Obama to reach the national championship game, the Hoosiers insist they’re not going to let anything derail their Final Four aspirations.
They open play Saturday against 16th-seeded Tennessee Tech (23-9).
“Just to know that we have that spotlight on us right now that we have the potential to make a run in this tournament is very exciting,” guard Sydney Parrish said.
The Golden Eagles, in contrast, have been busy – and winning.
They’ve played six times in 21 days, won eight straight, claimed their first Ohio Valley Conference tourney title in 23 years and have to face Indiana on the Hoosiers’ home court just 36 1/2 hours after posting their first NCAA Tournament win in 33 years, 79-69 over Monmouth in the play-in round.
Tennessee Tech has never won twice in the same NCAA tourney and none of its players have competed in front of a crowd larger than 6,400. Indiana officials have sold more than 12,000 tickets for Saturday’s doubleheader
“We’re all giddy and excited because this is something we’ve all dreamed about,” sixth-year guard Jordan Brock said. “But we are prepared for this (quick turnaround) because we do this in our conference. So we’re just going to focus on us.”
Oklahoma State could have come to Bloomington playing the numbers game.
With a first-year coach and a completely revamped roster, the team was picked to finish ninth in the Big 12. Instead, following a fourth-place finish, they wound up in Bloomington as the No. 8 seed paired against ninth-seeded Miami in Saturday’s second game.
Oklahoma State has lost four of five but isn’t worried.
“Whatever happened before, at this point, it doesn’t matter,” said guard Naomie Alnatas, who followed coach Jacie Hoyt from Kansas City to Oklahoma State. “We want to win, and if it has nothing to do with winning, guess what? It doesn’t matter.”
The Hurricanes (19-12) also struggled late this season – and historically in NCAA play. They’ve lost four of their last seven, are 5-8 away from their home court and are 3-6 since in the NCAA Tournament since 2015.
Still, they are confident they can make it out of the first round.
“What we learned last year was that these eight-nine games are the juiciest, best games of the tournament,” Miami coach Katie Meier said. “They are fun. Both teams are hungry. We’ve been in these games for two months, it’s another one of those games.”
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