Indiana’s Ali Patberg was emphatic: The Hoosiers’ workmanlike mentality is what has put them in the Elite Eight for the very first time.
“There’s nobody that works harder than us, our program,” she said. “There’s nobody.”
And perhaps no Indiana player embodies that work ethic more than Patberg.
The senior guard traveled a bumpy road to get to this point. She is an Indiana native who grew up watching the Hoosiers’ men. But the state’s 2015 Miss Basketball opted instead to play for Notre Dame.
Her freshman year was derailed before it started because of torn knee ligament. Then another surgery and a bout with pneumonia left her playing a bench role as a sophomore.
So Patberg decided it was time to go home.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way. To be where I’m at with this team, it’s a dream come true to play for IU,” Patberg said. “It came full circle for me.”
Patberg had 17 points in Indiana’s 73-70 victory over top-seeded NC State in the Mercado Region, paving the way for a meeting with fellow Elite Eight first-timer Arizona on Monday night.
“You always say this about Ali, she makes everybody else around her better,” Hoosiers coach Teri Moren said. “But I think most importantly Ali makes people feel important, really special. When you’re in her presence, she is all about you, doesn’t get distracted. She’s not an on-the-phone type of kid, text messaging. That’s not Ali. She wants to be in the moment.”
Like the fourth-seeded Hoosiers, the third-seeded Wildcats are led by a hard-working senior in Aari McDonald, who had 31 points in Arizona’s 74-59 victory over No. 2 seed Texas A&M.
Arizona is embracing its underdog role in the tournament. The winner will face the winner of Monday’s other Elite Eight game between UConn and defending champion Baylor in the River Walk Region.
“No one believed in Arizona. When Aari came to Arizona, we were like 300th in the RPI. I didn’t know, we didn’t know, but we had faith, we had faith that one day we were going to do something special” Wildcats coach Adia Barnes said. “And this young lady has done everything — we’ve been on her back the whole season. She’s fought, she’s an awesome defensive player and offensive offensive player. She’s helped us reach another level.”
LEAVE A LEGACY
Barnes is in the fifth season as coach at her alma mater. But she recalled how she was a bit hesitant about taking the job..
“The stakes are just so high,” Barnes said. “Coaches who fail to turn programs around sometimes don’t get another chance.
“Yes, I had second, third, fourth, fifth thoughts because when I was first taking the job at Arizona there hadn’t been success. Obviously it’s my alma mater, so it’s always more special, it’s like every player’s dream to go back to your school and do something special. But I had reservations because Arizona hadn’t been good for a long time. Didn’t know if it was super easy to bring a team from 11th or 12th to possible contending for a title.”
In 1998, when Barnes was a guard, Arizona defeated Santa Clara and Virginia at the NCAA Tournament before falling 74-57 to No. 2 seed Connecticut.
Moren said she wasn’t surprised about how far the Hoosiers have come. This run was part of a “brick-by-brick” building process.
“In the last probably three or four years, we have intentionally really upped our schedule and played some of the best. Last year we were at the Virgin Islands, we opened up with South Carolina and Baylor. Beat South Carolina, came awfully close to a really great Baylor team,” Moren said. “We’ve been in these moments so our expectations absolutely are high. That will always be the case.”
Not a lot of pundits thought Arizona would get this far. Except for one notable basketball fan: Barack Obama.
The former president had the Wildcats in the Elite Eight facing top-seeded North Carolina State.
“We believed in this. No one else did, except for maybe Obama,” Barnes said. “Everybody else didn’t even consider us in this region.”
HOOSIERS, WILDCATS PRAISE
UConn coach Geno Auriemma said Arizona and Indiana are both examples of the power of finding the right fit, coach-wise.
“The more success stories like Aida and Terri, just to name two, the more success stories like that, the better women’s college basketball is,” he said.
Auriemma even recalled facing Barnes as a player.
“I’m not surprised at her success and I’m not surprised that Arizona is where they are,” he said. “And coaches like Adia and Terri at Indiana, when you get it right, the right coach at the right place that has the right stuff for that school.”
AP Sports Writer Pat Eaton-Robb contributed to this report.
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