Patberg's basketball journey helps IU reach new heights

George Bremer, The Herald Bulletin, Anderson, Ind.
·5 min read

Mar. 28—Some of Ali Patberg's earliest basketball memories were forged in Assembly Hall.

The Columbus native made regular pilgrimages with her family to Bloomington's basketball cathedral and marveled at the national championship banners prominently displayed on the wall. But Patberg rarely imagined herself playing there.

Those titles were all won by the men's team, and the tradition on the women's side was all but non-existent. After a decorated career at Columbus North that included a 99-9 overall record and the school's first girls basketball state championship, Patberg eschewed the Hoosiers and chose to attend perennial power Notre Dame.

In 2014, however, Indiana's fortunes began to change with the hiring of Seymour native Teri Moren. The Hoosiers won 20 games in just Moren's second season, and after things went awry for Patberg in South Bend, she felt the call home.

On Monday night, the sixth-year senior and her teammates will have a chance to reach college basketball's grandest stage — battling Arizona in an NCAA Tournament regional final in San Antonio for a spot in the Final Four.

It might not be the path Patberg envisioned, but it's hard to imagine a more satisfying destination.

"I grew up right down the road. I'm a Hoosier," Patberg said Saturday night, after fourth-seeded Indiana upset No. 1-seed North Carolina State in the Mercado Region. "This means the world to me. My team, my program — our program — it's a blessing. It's a dream come true.

"To be here on this stage with my teammates and my coaches, I can't even explain how much of a blessing it is, how thankful I am, how grateful I am to be a part of this team and this school."

Like many dreams, the realization of this one came at a cost.

Patberg burst onto the Big Ten scene in the 2018-19 season, leading the Hoosiers with 15.8 points and 4.8 assists per game while averaging 5 rebounds and shooting 80.4% from the free-throw line and helping the team reach the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

But, like the program she has so embraced, Patberg was no overnight success.

She missed her entire freshman season at Notre Dame in 2015-16 after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee in a November practice. Still recovering from the injury, she averaged just 7.7 minutes in 22 games the next season and for the first time was confronted with her basketball mortality.

Shaken and adrift, Patberg found a welcoming home with the Hoosiers — and promptly had to sit out another season as a transfer. But it was during that time she slowly rebuilt her game with the support of her new teammates and coaches.

"Ali Patberg is one of the best kids I will ever coach," Moren said. "When I say that, I mean her character, how she's been raised, her respect level that she has for her staff, for her team. So the answer is really simple. We just loved on her. We just loved on her and tried to build her up every day."

Patberg spent hours in the gym with assistant coach Glenn Box refining her fundamentals, rediscovering her love for the game and unlocking the potential everybody knew she had.

She followed up her sensational Indiana debut season by averaging 15.6 points and 5.3 assists while earning first-team All-Big Ten honors in 2019-20. The Hoosiers enjoyed a breakout campaign that entered the team in the national conversation and had high hopes for the NCAA Tournament before the coronavirus pandemic put the entire sports world on hold.

This year, Patberg has ceded some personal glory in order to allow the team to take another step forward. Her scoring average dipped to 14.1 — third on the team — as forward Mackenzie Holmes and guard Grace Berger emerged as consistent threats. Nicole Cardano-Hillary arrived as a transfer from George Mason and shouldered some of the ballhandling responsibilities, and Patberg's assists average dropped to 3.7 per game.

But she's always been a leader, and she was at the heart of the action Saturday as the Hoosiers opened the second half with an 8-2 run to open a double-digit lead against the stunned Wolfpack. She finished with a team-high 17 points, including a clutch free throw with 11.3 seconds left in a 73-70 victory.

Afterward, she was more focused on the three free throws she missed and the outstanding job the coaches did in preparing IU for the game.

"You always say this about Ali, she makes everybody else around her better," 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, right there, getting to know someone on a personal level.

"She's been an unbelievable leader for this group. Unbelievable. None of this is possible without Ali Patberg and the leadership she provides every night for those kids."

Predictably, Patberg doesn't care who gets the credit. She just wants to win.

If her interrupted career has taught her anything, it's that things don't always go according to plan.

And that's not always a bad thing.

"My journey has been very different," Patberg said. "But, you know, it's been perfect."