After a year of playing basketball in mostly-empty arenas, Ali Patberg is ready to play in front of fans again.
The senior from Columbus North did not have that luxury, at least for home games last season, when attendance was restricted at Indiana University and other schools because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, they’re open for business.
“I think we really realize how important our fans are, especially in Assembly Hall, and how much they help us,” Patberg said. “Whether we’re down, and we’re struggling, they can bring us energy and momentum that we need. If we take care of business, we want to be able to host (the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament), and how big that will be to have fans that support us all year.”
Last year, Patberg led the Hoosiers to a 21-6 record and an Elite Eight appearance. They’re hoping to take at least one more step and reach the Final Four this season.
Speaking at IU’s women’s basketball media day, Patberg talked about having more energy in a more normal preseason than last year.
“We approached it in a different mindset, but also, we just came off an Elite Eight run, so once you get a little taste of that, it just fuels you even more,” Patberg said. “So I think every workout was high intensity, not like it wasn’t before, but it was just another level, and we have so many veterans that know it takes to get where we were last year and knowing we want to go farther and what it’s going to take more.”
Her first two years playing at IU, Patberg led the Hoosiers with 15.8 and 15.6 points a game. With the emergence of fellow guard Grace Berger and center Mackenzie Holmes, Patberg’s scoring average dipped to 14.0 last season.
In the middle of last season, Patberg moved to a shooting guard spot, and Nicole Cardano-Hillary took over most of the point guard duties. IU coach Teri Moren plans to keep the same offensive setup this season.
“Now, it’s more an adjustment for me because I haven’t done that my whole life,” Patberg said. “As a point guard, you have different responsibilities, getting us in our stuff and trying to figure out what we should run and what we shouldn’t. Playing off the ball, a lot of it is thinking to score more. That’s never been my first thought. I would say it’s less work, but more freedom.”
Patberg said she’s had to get comfortable with the mentality of playing off the ball.
“Nikki is great at point, so just having that mentality of being a scorer, score-first mentality, just because I’ve been a point guard my whole life,” Patberg said. “With that comes along with being ready to shoot just attacking, being aggressive, being strong in everything I do, finishing strong.”
Along with Patberg, Berger, Holmes and Cardano-Hillary, the Hoosiers return their other starter, forward Alexsa Gulbe and a few key bench players.
“We’re not the only team returning great players,” Patberg said. “The league is really neat this year. Every game I think is going to be a great matchup, and the great thing about the Big Ten is, there’s so many different teams with different styles, and that makes it even more fun, just having to scout differently and make adjustments. Every matchup is going to be great and challenging and exciting.”
The non-conference schedule also is tougher this season. The Hoosiers play Kentucky in their home opener Nov. 14, play defending national champion Stanford in a tournament in The Bahamas Nov. 25 and host North Carolina State in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge Dec. 2 in a rematch of last year’s Sweet 16 matchup.
“I think that our conference is one of the best in the country, so it’s going to be a great Big Ten season with the teams and how much we’re going to be challenged,” Patberg said. “The preseason, we’re going to play all the other great conferences, and it’s going to prepare us for Big Ten. We’re all competitors, and we’re excited that we get to play teams at that level — Stanford, NC State, Kentucky. I’m excited. We’re all excited. It’s going to be a challenge, but we’re ready for it. There are going to be ups and downs, but it’s going to make us better. We’re going to learn from the wins and whatever comes our way.”
Patberg said learning from those experiences helped the team succeed last season.
“I think last year, we made it as far as we did because when we experienced our downs, we rebounded really well, and I believe that was because we stayed together,” Patberg said. “We attacked whatever was in front of us, whether it was good or bad, and we stayed together. Coach Moren always says we’re stronger as a fist than two or three individuals, and I think the way that we have handled adversity is incredible. We rarely if ever point fingers, and if we do, we talk about it. We’re a veteran group, and we understand, there’s going to be ups, and they’re going to be downs. How we handle the downs are what makes us get better. When we go through adversity, we get stronger, and I think that’s what happened last year when we had adversity. We didn’t let it stop us. It only fueled us to be better, and we took those lessons, and we got better.”
This will be Patberg’s seventh year in college and her fifth at IU, having spent her first two years at Notre Dame. The 2015 Indiana Miss Basketball and McDonald’s All-American jumped at the chance to return to IU when all college players were given an extra year of eligibility because of the pandemic.
“When I had the choice to come back, and I knew everyone else was going to come back, it was a no-brainer,” Patberg said. “I love it here at IU. I love the people. I am constantly challenged to be a better player and a better person every day, and I don’t think you can ever stop growing and becoming better, so it was a no-brainer to have an opportunity to play here again, to win for this program, for these people. It was an easy decision for me, and I am so excited that I have this opportunity.”
Although she’s already been through one senior season and senior day, Patberg thinks this go-round might hit her a little harder.
“I’m a pretty emotional person,” Patberg said. “It’s funny because I try not to think about it because I don’t want to be upset — not upset, because I’m happy. I enjoy that I’ve gotten to play here at IU — but I do want to think about it because I want to truly embrace and enjoy every moment, whether it’s practice, whether it’s after practice in the locker room, whether it’s in coach Moren’s office just talking to her. I don’t like to think about it, but it’s important to because I want to treasure it all. I want to leave it all out there.”