Hoosiers hope to take advantage of historic host opportunity

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — Coach Teri Moren promised to change the Indiana’s women’s program when she was hired in 2014.

She’s delivered more success than just about anyone anticipated.

The Hoosiers have a school record seven straight 20-win seasons, won the 2017-18 WNIT, finished 22nd in home attendance this season and are trying to use their first Elite Eight run to propel them further this season. The journey starts Saturday with another milestone — hosting their first NCAA tourney games.

“There’s clearly a home-court advantage when you have this opportunity to host,” Moren said Friday. “We’ve had a lot of historic moments since we’ve been here in our eight years and it’s just another thing we can add to what we’re building here.”

For the Hoosiers (22-8), it’s been a steady ascension since Moren started 15-16 her first season. But the progression has accelerated greatly over the past 12 months.

After making last year’s deep postseason run, Indiana started this season in the top 10. Early wins over Kentucky and Ohio State, plus single-digit losses to Stanford and North Carolina State, solidified their spot. Then they lost four of their last five regular-season games only to win their first Big Ten Tournament ince 2002.

Next up for the third-seeded Hoosiers is 14th-seeded Charlotte (22-9), the Conference USA regular-season and tourney champs.

“We know it’s going to be loud, like it was at West Virginia but we never get rattled by stuff like that,” said Octavia Jett-Wilson, the league tourney MVP for the 49ers. “Us having that mentality, we’re not going to back down from that. It doesn’t matter whose home court we’re on.”

The winner faces either sixth-seeded Kentucky (19-11), the Southeastern Conference tourney champs, or 11th-seeded Princeton (24-4), the Ivy League champion.

Charlotte is making its first tourney appearance since 2008-09 and has some big-time experience. Four players played previously at Power Five schools including two starters, Mikayla Boykin (Duke) and KeKe McKinney (Kentucky).

But the Hoosiers have all five starters back from last season’s tourney team, including Ali Patberg, a seventh-year player making her fourth NCAA tourney appearance. She sat out 2017-18 after transferring from Notre Dame and her 88 career wins are tied for Indiana’s school record with Keyanna Warthen and current teammate Grace Berger.

“Being a veteran team is very helpful, and getting to where we got last year also is helpful,” guard Nicole Cardano-Hillary said. “I think what we’ve dealt with this year, having so many games in not that many days has really prepared us to keep our heads down and do what we do.”

PRINCETON vs. KENTUCKY

Princeton coach Carla Berube is leading the Tigers into the postseason for the first time, but she’s no newcomer to NCAA play. The former UConn star played in two Final Fours and was part of the Huskies’ 1995 undefeated national championship team.

This journey has been rather unusual, though. After winning the 2019-20 Ivy title, NCAA officials canceled the tourney and the pandemic also prevented the Tigers from playing in 2020-21.

They enter the tourney on a 17-game winning streak, 16 coming by double digits, since a December loss to Texas and with the nation’s longest active winning streak in conference play (42). Princeton also allows the third-fewest points in Division I (50.9 per game).

“It’s really awesome to be here,” Berube said. “It’s been a long time coming.”

Even with Ivy League player of the year Abby Meyers, the Tigers face a major challenge in slowing All-American Rhyne Howard, Kentucky’s top scorer at 20.6 points.

But Wildcats coach Kyra Elzy, whose team stunned top-ranked South Carolina in the SEC title game for a 10th straight win, knows her team must stay focused.

“We were in a dogfight then and we’re going to be in a dogfight again because everyone is coming to compete,” Elzy said, reflecting on a 2019 tourney against Princeton. “They’re well balanced, they play well together and with what they do on the defensive end, we’ll have our hands full.”

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More AP coverage of March Madness: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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