CINCINNATI, Ohio—A small boy—likely the brother of one of the IU women’s basketball players—donning Indiana’s iconic candy-striped pants and a Hoosiers basketball jersey waited outside of the IU locker room. After several minutes of pacing back and forth in the hallway, he decided that he couldn’t wait any longer. He opened the door, allowing a muffled rendition of “Happy Birthday” to escape the confines of the Hoosier locker room and it echoed throughout the bowels of Xavier University’s Cintas Center. The team was wishing Assistant Coach Kevin Eckert a happy birthday.
Then, one by one, the players and team personnel filed out of the locker room and towards the team bus.
IU Assistant Coach Brandi Poole expressed her excitement for the Potbelly sandwiches that awaited the team on the bus for the ride back to Bloomington.
IU Coach Curt Miller remarked that his foot ached and he was quick to mention that he didn’t stomp his foot once in frustration at an official during the game.
To an outside observer, the team’s post-game demeanor following its 62-55 victory against Xavier on Sunday wouldn’t appear out of the ordinary.
However, this year’s IU women’s basketball team is far from ordinary. The road win completed IU’s perfect run through the gauntlet of its non-conference schedule.
Thirteen games, thirteen victories.
For those with a superstitious disposition, there’s not a more unlucky number than 13 but for the Hoosiers, the number represents an unprecedented milestone. In the 42-year history of the Hoosier women’s basketball program, IU has never won 13 games in a row, let alone had that many consecutive victories to start a season.
“Certainly not a lot of people outside our locker room gave us any kind of chance to do that,” Miller said. “We got a long way to go in this building process, years still to (be) where we ultimately want to be but (I’m) really proud of them.”
Miller cracked a smile as he began to list the team’s achievements through the first two months of the season.
“Six true road wins, 13-0, best start,” he said. “(I’m) really proud of those accomplishments.”
Miller’s squad successfully navigated the only three-game road trip scheduled for a Big Ten team this season and the Hoosiers finished the calendar year by defeating a Xavier team that has a 164-50 home record since the Cintas Center opened.
Miller’s faith in his bench and IU’s ability to dominate the paint proved to be the difference as the Hoosiers held off Xavier’s second half scoring run.
Seven Hoosiers contributed off the bench but no one was more valuable than senior center Simone Deloach, who recorded her second career double-double with season highs in points and rebounds. The Round Rock, Tex. native scored 10 points on 5-of-8 shooting, grabbed 10 rebounds, blocked one shot and logged one steal.
Led by its senior-laden frontcourt, IU outscored Xavier 38-16 in the paint and the Hoosiers outrebounded their opponent for the ninth time this season.
Senior forward Tabitha Gerardot, who led the Hoosiers with 19 points, said the team’s depth has been one of its strengths all season.
“Coach (Miller) is masterful at knowing who to put in,” Gerardot said. “Sometimes you go ‘Woah, I wasn’t expecting that’ and then that player shines out there and does something really good. I think it’s hard to guard a team that has so many players coming in.”
IU’s starters, along with Deloach, built up an early lead in the first 14 minutes and the cushion paid dividends for the rest of the game.
After missing its first four shots and falling behind 5-2, IU went on an 11-0 run that was fueled by four Xavier turnovers. Freshman Taylor Agler was able to maneuver through the Musketeers’ weak transition defense three separate times for layups in that span.
“We did the best job running…early in the game,” Miller said. “(It’s) always great (when) you get some transition points. We had points in the paint in the first ten minutes of the game. Right off the bat we were in double figures in points in the paint.”
With IU leading 15-9 in the first half, Xavier Coach Brian Neal adjusted to a full-court press. The coaching decision backfired in the short run as the Hoosiers exploited the Musketeers’ new defensive look and they went on a 12-2 run that lasted nearly seven minutes.
IU was in the driver’s seat with a 27-11 lead but the Hoosiers were unable to deliver the knockout blow to Xavier.
“We just couldn’t seem to make a few shots to put the dagger in,” Miller said. “We got a little big stagnant offensively, they dictated where they wanted us to go and we didn’t make some shots. We weren’t getting on the boards as we got tired.”
In the final 6:04 of the first half, IU shot 1-of-8 from the floor, turned the ball over six times and committed four fouls.
On the sideline, Miller was visibly upset with his team’s sudden implosion and he called two timeouts in the waning minutes of the first half to try to regroup his young backcourt.
“We had some turnover issues in stretches, we had some freshman mistakes,” he said. “I thought we played fatigued at times and didn’t play through our fatigue. We succumbed to it and made some mental mistakes.”
Miller said his message to his players at halftime was that Xavier wasn’t going to go away despite IU’s 12-point lead.
“They’ve won a lot of games in this building and they have a senior backcourt so we needed to fight,” he said. “We know we had twenty minutes to do what we called ‘something special,’ 13-0, and they fought all the way to the finish line.”
Shatyra Hawkes, Xavier’s senior point guard, nearly single-handedly willed the Musketeers to within striking distance of the Hoosiers. Hawkes finished with a game-high 23 points and she was 5-of-6 from the field in the second half.
When asked what made the 5-foot-3 guard so difficult to defend, Miller said that as a senior, Hawkes has been “through the wars.”
“She’s a very good one-on-one player and hard to match with at times,” he said. “We knew that coming in. She’s their leading scorer, she takes the most shots. We weren’t going to shut her totally down but if we could contain her from a monster game, we felt good.”
Excluding Hawkes, Xavier struggled to get in a rhythm offensively. Her teammates were 12-of-41 from the field and 3-of-21 from three-point range, making a comeback virtually impossible. The Musketeers never drew closer than seven points of the Hoosiers in the second half.
Gerardot said the players have 24 hours to be excited about the latest notch in their belt before the team has to reset for the beginning of conference play.
“Obviously it means a lot,” she said. “Everybody is really excited and pumped about what we’ve been able to accomplish this far. All our little goals and big goals have come together so it’s been a really fun start but we know have to look forward to the next part of the season so it’s kind of like starting over.”
Miller is giving his team a day off before it puts its nose back to the grindstone. On paper, the first week of 2014 is as challenging for the Hoosiers as any other five-day stretch in the regular season.
“Your reward for going 13-0 is starting off with back-to-back ranked teams in Iowa and Purdue so we know January is awaiting for us and it’s not going to be easy,” he said. “We’re young but this freshman class is fearless and we’ve got an energized senior group that’s having the best year of their careers. It’s going to be fun.”
“It’s always fun to be the underdog and you get to go lay it on the line and see what happens.”
How good can the Hoosiers be when Big Ten play rolls around?
“We’ve exceeded so many expectations, we’re far past what people thought so I don’t even want to set a limit,” Gerardot said. “I don’t know, we’ll see. I’m really excited though, it’s definitely the most fun college year I’ve had and I think everybody is enjoying the ride.”
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