The shots were falling in practice, but not to the same extent in games. For a volume shooter like Nicole Cardano-Hillary, there was only one way to fix such a discrepancy.
The payoff came on Thursday, when the George Mason transfer finished with 14 points off the bench in No. 20 Indiana’s 79-56 drubbing of Illinois. Cardano-Hillary’s scoring punch was the primary reason IU added her as a transfer this spring, and yet it’s taken time for the former Atlantic-10 Player of the Year to find traction in the Hoosiers’ rotation.
After shooting a combined 3-for-15 in her first three games with the Hoosiers, Cardano-Hillary hit five field goals, including three 3-pointers against the Illini. Suffice to say, she found the in-game stroke she had been looking for.
“It’s been very exciting to be able to play this year,” she said. “It wasn’t supposed to be this way, but I’m glad it is. I’m just glad that I can help my team in any way that I can.”
When she’s hitting shots like she was on Thursday, especially from deep, Cardano-Hillary has the potential to add even more of a jolt to a deep IU lineup. At Mason, Cardano-Hillary scored in double figures 27 times, eclipsing the 20-point mark in 11 games on the way to becoming that program’s all-time leading scorer in just three years.
At Indiana, she’s just getting started.
“Nikki came in and gave us great minutes,” Indiana coach Teri Moren said. “It was nice to finally see that thing go in for her.”
Several players had an impact on Thursday’s win, a game the Hoosiers led by as many as 31 points in the fourth quarter. Mackenzie Holmes scored a team-high 18 points, Grace Berger finished with 15 points and Ali Patberg added 11 for IU, which has won each of its first three Big Ten games. Patberg and Berger helped Indiana avoid a slow start, drilling a couple quick 3s to send the Hoosiers on a game-opening 8-1 run. From there, Indiana never trailed, opening a 20-5 advantage by the waning moments of the quarter.
Thursday marked IU’s 11th consecutive win over Illinois, a streak that dates to 2014.
“I thought today we had some really good moments but there was a little frustration,” Moren said. “We were doing really good things offensively but then we would go down the floor and do something silly defensively. It just seemed we could not put long enough stretches together where we were really good offensively and defensively. That was a little bit frustrating but again I think we were trying to work some kinks out after having some time off and getting back on the floor.”
Indiana recorded assists on 19 of its 29 field goals and, for the third straight game, made at least 75% of its free throws, going 15-for-20 at the stripe.
Now, IU faces maybe its toughest test of the season — a trip to No. 14 Maryland. The Hoosiers have never beaten the Terrapins in 10 all-time meetings. That game will be televised on ESPN2 at 7 p.m. Eastern on Monday night.