KRAVITZ: Seniors Buss and Cahill go out as WNIT champs as the Hoosiers knock off Virginia Tech

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Bob Kravitz

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (WTHR) - Pictures, everybody wanted pictures, soon-to-be-framed mementos to last a lifetime.

“Excuse me a minute,’’ said Tim Buss, the father of IU senior star Tyra Buss, whose Hoosiers beat Virginia Tech, 65-57, to win the women’s NIT in front of 13,072 fans – the biggest crowd ever to watch an IU women’s game at Assembly Hall.

And off he went. There were more pictures to take. Tyra and her dad. Tyra and her mom. Tyra and both her folks, and then the extended family, and then some friends who’d made the trip from Mt. Carmel, Ill., Buss holding the WNIT championship trophy in her steady hands. It was the perfect ending for the Hoosiers, and especially for the two record-setting seniors, Buss and Amanda Cahill, who will not only leave the program as champions, but will leave the program so much better than when they began their careers.

Soon, Tim Buss was back, sharing old memories and reveling in the new ones his daughter had just made.

“When did you know she could be a special basketball player?’’ I asked him as IU’s players ascended a ladder and cut down the nets.

“We still have a video of her in the first grade,’’ he said. “She stole an inbounds pass, dribbled the length of the floor and laid it in. That’s when I thought, 'Wow, she’s got a chance to be special'."

He smiled.

“I’m going to be talking about this day for a long time,’’ he said as Tyra prepared to head up the ladder. Then he smiled. “Probably forever.’’

Banners are forever, and while the NIT isn’t the NCAA, and nobody is arguing otherwise, this was a great and proud moment for a women’s basketball program that has only started to find its footing the last couple of years under head coach Teri Moren. This is the kind of moment that can catapult a program, especially after the winningest senior class walked off the floor with a big, bronze trophy and cream-and-crimson streamers on their shoulders and at their feet.

This was the way for Buss and Cahill to go out, with a win, with a championship, with the knowledge that their school will soon be hanging a banner in Assembly Hall.

Buss? All the Illinois native did was walk away from Bloomington as the program leader in points, steals, free throws made, free throws attempted and assists. We miss anything? She only needed three 3-pointers to hold that record, too, but she struggled from behind the arc, finishing 0-for-6 on a day when IU missed its first 13 3-point attempts.

Not that she particularly cared about the final statistic. She walked away a winner, something nobody could have imagined when IU began the season 8-12 and 1-6 in the Big Ten, only to turn it around and make a run at NCAA Tournament inclusion.

“She’s won a lot of championships individually in different sports, but the one thing she always wanted was to win a title with a team,’’ Tim Buss was telling me. “The individual stuff meant zero to her. She wanted to go out and win one with her team. When they were [struggling early in the season], I kept thinking, 'Is this the way she's going to go out? Is this the way Amanda is going to go out?' But then they pulled it together and had a great season."

Cahill? All she did was walk away as the second player in program history to score 1,600 points and grab 1115 rebounds. She finished fourth in all-time points and first in 3-point field-goal percentage.

Together, they took IU to its first NCAA Tournament in 14 years when it got there in 2015, and won IU’s first Tournament game in 33 years. And now this; it’s not the banner, but it’s a banner, and if you saw them all smiling and celebrating and soaking up the moment, you knew it didn't matter. A championship is a championship. How many athletes get to end their careers with a victory?

“…They’re the whole package,’’ Moren said of Buss and Cahill. “Great students, great athletes, great ambassadors of the university. They’re going to go down as two of the very best.’’

What happened on the court was undeniably special, but what happened in the stands was equally remarkable. Most nights, games are so sparsely attended, Moren can hear the other team’s play calls from the bench. But as this NIT run began to take on steam, fans (and yes, media) started jumping on the bandwagon. Could you blame them? They haven’t had a lot to cheer at IU this sports year; the football team was blah and the men's basketball team failed to earn a post-season bid.

Every successive night, the crowds got bigger and bigger, and then…

This.

Moren noticed several hours before the game, there were students lined up near Cook Hall. An hour before the game, thousands stood outside in line, attempting to shoehorn their way into the building. “That only happens for the men’s games,’’ she said later.

Before the game, I found myself watching Buss and Cahill as they stood in line and prepared for the anthem, and their eyes were saucers. At one point, Buss gazed toward the stands, where 13,072 fans were gathering, then she turned to Cahill and mouthed the words:

Wow.

"Our goal, we [Buss and Cahill] talked from the beginning [of our careers], we wanted to have some people in the upper deck and there were today," Buss said as she wore the net around her shoulders like an priceless shawl. "So we were really proud of ourselves. Not the 13,000 but the fact there were people in the upper deck, so it meant a lot to us."

Virginia Tech’s head coach, Kenny Brooks, came here as a player with James Madison to play the Hoosiers in 1988.

"I have to give it to Hoosier Nation,’’ he said. “They came out in full force. I played here against one of coach [Bob] Knight’s teams and I don’t remember the crowd being that boisterous."

Buss didn't have a typical Buss game, finishing with 16 points on 6-of-21 shooting. Cahill was steadier, finishing with 14 points on 4-of-7 shooting, including a late 3-ball that gave the Hoosiers the cushion they’d been seeking all night. Instead, it was the freshmen, notably Bendu Yeaney (14 points and nine in the fourth quarter) and Jaelynn Penn (10 points and 10 rebounds) who seized the moment.

"I’ve never coached two more confident freshmen," Moren said.

Someday soon, Buss and Cahill will be back and will watch as the banner is raised to the roof. That's their banner, the fruit of their labor, with lots of help from teammates, especially in this final. And it will feel good because they walked away champions, and they made women’s basketball an event for one rousing day. And here's the cool part: It may be the last we see of Buss and Cahill, but it’s not the last we’re going to see of IU women’s basketball. Those two laid the foundation, and now the possibilities are endless.

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