You could fit almost every person in Mackenzie Holmes’ hometown inside Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall to watch her play. Gorham, Maine sits in the southern corner of the state and is home to Gorham High School, where Holmes won two state championships in front of a student population of just over 800.
When the freshman forward walks through Indiana University’s Bloomington campus every day, she is greeted by a student population of nearly 50,000.
“I love how many different faces you see every day,” Holmes said. “You never see the same face usually when you are walking to class so I enjoy that.”
While there is a stark contrast between her hometown and the campus she now calls home, there is one definite similarity that Holmes recognizes between the two. Strong basketball culture.
“It is very tight-knit,” Holmes said. “I come from a small town…but we would sell out our high school games. People are very passionate about basketball, but since it is such a small state people don’t realize that because people don’t really pay attention to it.”
Head girls’ basketball coach Laughn Berthiaume said in his 16 years at Gorham High School, and 13 years as head coach of the girls’ basketball team, that he has progressively seen the fanbase and basketball culture grow. Berthiaume credits this growth to a tradition of players coming back after graduation to give back to the community.
Berthiaume is proud to see alumni return to Gorham to help out with basketball camps, or just being someone for younger kids to look up to. While a lot is given back to the community after graduation, Berthiaume said this culture starts during the athletes’ high school years.
“I just think they valued being a part of it,” Berthiaume said. “It is one of the things that it is just easy. It is something that they came into the program knowing, so leaving the program on the other end they want to do the same for the kids coming through.”
Holmes was rated as a five-star prospect out of Gorham High School and the No. 53 recruit in the 2019 class. As a senior, she was named the 2019 Maine Gatorade Player of the Year after averaging 30.1 points, 16.7 rebounds, 3.9 blocks and 2.9 steals per game on 63.1 percent shooting from the floor.
— TrophyMode (@TrophyMode) January 6, 2019
Gorham won the state championship in basketball in both Holmes’ freshman and sophomore seasons. While she is thankful of all the awards and experiences she earned, the fact that she and her teammates failed to become state champions in her junior and senior year left something to be desired.
“A lot of people were like, ‘Those were 2K numbers,’” Holmes said. “But I wasn’t happy if we weren’t winning, so I would say this. I would trade in any of the personal accolades I got, the numbers I got my senior year, for another state championship. I would trade it all.”
This desire to win and play at the highest level, coupled with growing up in a passionate basketball town, has allowed Holmes to adjust seamlessly to college life and the college game.
After seeing what Indiana University had to offer and the basketball culture she related to her hometown, Holmes was able to determine what she wanted her college experience to be like. Growing up 1,100 miles away, Holmes didn’t know much about the history of Indiana basketball, or even much about the state, for that matter.
Holmes is the daughter of a basketball coach and her father, Lenny, took his team to one of Bob Knight’s team camps that used to take place during the summer. But it wasn’t until the Indiana coaching staff reached out to Holmes that she knew her father had an IU connection, however small. Lenny told his daughter of the rich history of Indiana basketball, which was immediately intriguing for Holmes.
“One of the things I was looking for was something that would replicate how it was in my hometown because I don’t want to play in an empty gym,” Holmes said. “As much energy as our team and bench brings, when you have the fans you have in Assembly Hall, it’s just different. The energy is so different and I wanted something like that, so my dad said we should check it out and the rest is history.”
Fitting into ‘The Hype Zone’
Indiana fans love to use the saying, “In 49 states it’s just basketball,” and while Holmes’ hometown prides itself on having a strong
basketball fanbase and culture, she soon realized the truth to this saying after stepping foot in Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.
Other than a strong culture of basketball and one of the biggest fanbases in the sport, Holmes really connected with the Indiana coaching staff during her recruiting process. Assistant coach Rhet Wierzba was the first person to reach out to Holmes and since her first visit, the two have built a strong relationship.
“He is definitely someone I can go to on and off the court, which I think is really important,” Holmes said. “I can go to him for a non-basketball problem or a basketball problem and he will be there for me no matter what and I trust him.”
One of Wierzba’s duties as an assistant coach is to coach the forwards during practice. Holmes said she and the rest of the forwards on the team, along with Wierzba, call themselves “The Hype Zone,” which is indicative of the energy they bring to each game.
Senior Brenna Wise leads “The Hype Zone” on the floor, but it’s Wierzba that leads the movement on the bench with his infectious energy.
“He does a lot of screaming,” Holmes said.
Holmes said she has been able to easily take advice from players like Aleksa Gulbe and Wise in part because of their close relationship. Berthiaume said that one of the first things Holmes texted him after being at Indiana was how much she loved her team. Berthiaume thinks this comfort has helped Holmes play freely and adjust to a higher level of play.
“You play well when you are feeling good,” Berthiaume said. “So I just think feeling comfortable allows her to do what she does and not feel too much pressure.”
Indiana head coach Teri Moren has mentioned the phrase “good juice” multiple times throughout the season, which is a reference to the energy and positive attitude her players try to bring to practice and games.
Holmes says that Wise leads the “good juice” movement, with her high fives and chest bumps after big plays. That’s helped build a closer relationship between not only the forwards but the entire team, a team who set the program record with 24 wins in the 2019-20 season.
This close relationship with her teammates is not something new for Holmes, though.
Holmes lost in the state championship by one point her junior year, nearly completing a state championship three-peat. Berthiaume said ever since that loss, he noticed Holmes started playing for her teammates even more.
Holmes was the leader of her team her junior and senior year, and Berthiaume said he could always tell she was trying to help her teammates taste of what it is like to play in a state championship game.
“She is genuinely happy for someone else on her team that does well,” Berthiaume said.
This unselfish attitude has led to a strong relationship with her teammates and coaches. Wierzba and the rest of the forwards on the team, specifically, have helped make the transition to Division I basketball easy.
The ultimate sixth man
One of the major adjustments Holmes has had to make in college has been coming off the bench. Throughout her high school career, Holmes had always been a starter at Gorham, which made this change difficult at first.
“I would say that I have kind of learned my role as the season progresses,” Holmes said. “Now that I know my role and I have my role, which is to bring energy off the bench, I can embrace that and do whatever I can to make that a consistent effort every game.”
In Indiana’s win over Illinois on Jan. 6, Holmes scored 16 points and grabbed eight rebounds off the bench. At times it doesn’t seem like Holmes is a bench player, though, as she averages just four and a half fewer minutes played per game than Gulbe. After the win over Illinois, Moren had high praise for Holmes’ play off the bench.
“I thought the bench was terrific,” Moren said. “People say that when you go to your bench you lose something, but I thought tonight that was not the case.”
Holmes played a vital role for the 2019-20 Hoosiers. She averaged 19 minutes per game and asserted herself as IU’s most consistent bench player. Holmes fit seamlessly into an Indiana lineup mainly comprised of players returning from last year’s team.
— Indiana On BTN (@IndianaOnBTN) December 29, 2019
Indiana fans are now familiar with Holmes’ crafty post moves in the paint and her ability to finish on both sides of the basket, but there is another skill she has hidden up her sleeve: a jump-shot.
While Berthiaume admits Holmes fits well on this Indiana team playing in the post, she could add a jump shot to her repertoire before leaving Bloomington. Berthiaume said Holmes developed an outside shot while at Gorham as a result of other teams dedicating all of their focus to her in the paint with double and triple-teams.
“We kind of had to move her around out of necessity because she would literally go to the block and get three kids on her right away,” Berthiaume said.
As surprising as it might be, Berthiaume said Holmes shot 38 percent from 3-point land as a senior at Gorham. Holmes had one of the most impressive freshman seasons in the Big Ten this year, but adding this aspect could have been deadly for opponents game planning against Indiana.
“I remember a game this year when she did square up and hit an elbow jumper and I was like ‘Alright, I have seen that before,’” Berthiaume said. “It is not really something she is being asked to do, but she is capable of doing that… I think Indiana’s team right now is really well balanced. They have got some strong guards, so that is not something that she really needs to do.”
This experience being the center of attention of the other team has helped Holmes transition to the physicality of college basketball. It is not yet time for Holmes to break out an allegedly dangerous jump shot, but for now, she is doing just fine in the post.
Holmes mentions the physicality and pace of Big Ten basketball as the two biggest aspects of the game that she has had to adjust to. Because of this, Holmes has worked a lot on her toughness on defense and strength in the post. Moren has consistently said throughout the season that it takes a lot of grit and toughness to win Big Ten basketball games, which is the exact mindset Holmes uses even when she has a tough matchup.
“We have played some players that are a lot taller than me and a lot stronger than me,” Holmes said. “But you can still match up with them physically because we have been learning how to do that.”
Two games that Holmes highlights as major moments of development came against two of the country’s top women’s college basketball programs. Indiana traveled to the U.S. Virgin Islands during Thanksgiving break for matchups with then No. 5 South Carolina and No. 2 Baylor. The Hoosiers gave South Carolina, who finished the season ranked No. 1, its only loss of the season to this point in a signature 71-57 win.
— Indiana Women’s Basketball (@IndianaWBB) November 29, 2019
Although Indiana lost to Baylor by 15, Holmes said these two games showed her what playing against top competition is like. She finished with 19 points and 13 rebounds in the two matchups. Holmes said she learned that in big games it is important to take a deep breath in order to not get too overwhelmed or stressed out.
“I had obviously never seen competition that high so you’re not really getting your feet wet, you’re going all-in right at once,” Holmes said. “Being a freshman, that warmed me up.”
Holmes has shown improvement from the start of the year and turned into one of the best young forwards in the Big Ten. Holmes was recently named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team after averaging 10.9 points and 5.3 rebounds this year.
Part of what has made Holmes such a valuable weapon off the bench for Moren is her efficiency. Holmes shot 63 percent from the field in the regular season, a new program record among all Hoosiers, not just freshman. While she plays the sixth most minutes on the team, she has made the third most field goals, only trailing leading scorers and First-Team All-Big Ten members Ali Patberg and Grace Berger.
Berthiaume said much of what Holmes has accomplished at Indiana are things he has seen before from her, but the efficiency with
which Holmes has scored has been a bit surprising.
“I am not shocked at some of the shots she can make,” Berthiaume said. “I am a little more surprised she is making those shots on the athletes she is playing against.”
With a 78-60 win over Rutgers in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament on March 6, Indiana claimed its 24th win of the season, which set a program record for wins in a season, including postseason play. But in a season in which Indiana set a record for number of conference wins with 13 and claimed the highest program ranking at any point in the AP Poll at No. 12, the Hoosiers had bigger aspirations for March.
Unfortunately, both the women’s and men’s NCAA Tournaments were canceled on March 12 as a response to the COVID-19 outbreak. This put an abrupt ending to what could be considered the best season in the history of Indiana women’s basketball.
Last season, Indiana fell to Oregon in the round of 32 but the Hoosiers haven’t forgotten the taste of that loss. Canceling the tournament was the best decision for all parties involved, and could ultimately add to the motivation to reach the program’s first ever Sweet 16 next year. After accomplishing so many program records this season, the Hoosiers will return the vast majority of this season’s roster.
Wise was Indiana’s only senior, and will obviously be a huge loss moving forward. With the loss of Wise, Indiana loses part of the heart and soul of its team, but has the quality of players to reload and potentially be even better in the 2020-2021 season.
Because of this, Holmes said she will follow the leadership of a team that is largely composed of the same players who lost to Oregon in 2019 and set a program record in wins a year later. And you have to think that some of that sting from Gorham’s one-point loss in the state championship in Holmes’ junior year still motivates her.
“They know what it takes to get there,” Holmes said. “They know what it feels like to be there and most importantly, they know what it feels like to lose there and how much it stung. I think that sometimes when we are doing conditioning or have a hard practice, they all know what it felt like to get to that point, so it all makes it worth it in the end.”