With a chance to tie or take the lead, Michigan went with what worked all night long. The ball was entered to Naz Hillmon in the post with 35 seconds remaining, but Mackenzie Holmes poked the ball loose to force a turnover. Grace Berger calmly knocked down a pair of free throws, and Indiana hung on to a 75-70 win.
“The way [Holmes] stepped up on defense down the stretch was huge,” Aleksa Gulbe said. “…It came right when we needed it.”
While Holmes finished with one of her weaker performances of the season, scoring just six points and grabbing six rebounds, she came up with the defensive play of the game when it mattered most.
“When you struggle from the field, you can’t let that affect how you help us on the defensive end,” Indiana head coach Teri Moren said.
With the victory, Indiana moves into sole possession of second place in the Big Ten and moves to 14-4 overall. Thursday was the lone matchup between Indiana and Michigan in the regular season, which means the Hoosiers own the tiebreaker over Michigan after dropping to 7-2 in conference play.
Indiana’s 12-2 Big Ten record has been carried by strong play in the paint despite outside shooting struggles. The No. 14 Hoosiers entered Thursday’s showdown led by Holmes’ 18 points per game, making up for the team’s struggling 28 percent shooting from 3-point range.
But the story on Thursday night was nearly the opposite. Michigan’s Hillmon frustrated the usually-efficient Holmes down low, and the Hoosiers put together one of their best games from beyond the arc. Though the Wolverines dominated the paint with a 32-14 scoring margin inside, the Hoosiers answered by tripling the amount of 3-point makes from the Maize and Blue — nine for IU and three for Michigan.
Early on, it felt like Holmes and Gulbe would have their usual success in the paint, as Hillmon picked up two fouls within the game’s first three minutes. It seemed as if Indiana might have found the solution to stopping the potential Big Ten Player of the Year, but it wound up being only a temporary solution.
Hillmon’s impact was immediately felt in the second quarter scoring 10 points and establishing her presence in the paint. Hillmon came close to her season average of 26.1 points per game, finishing with a game-high 23 points and 12 rebounds.
Holmes, on the other hand, entered the game shooting 58 percent from the field, but was not her usual, efficient self on Thursday. The sophomore forward shot just 2-for-8 from the field and finished with six points and six rebounds.
However, Holmes’ teammates had her back, especially from the perimeter.
“I think Michigan came into this game letting us beat them from the outside…and we hit them today,” Moren said.
Indiana’s recent mid-season opt-outs — four-year starter Jaelynn Penn and Notre Dame transfer Danielle Patterson — didn’t seem to deter the Hoosiers’ bench production, either.
Chloe Moore-McNeil provided a big boost knocking down two 3-pointers in the second quarter, and Gulbe and Ali Patberg also combined for an efficient 6-for-9 from the perimeter. Patberg led the way with 21 points, and her leadership down the stretch helped Indiana close out its fifth win in a row.
“Everyone on this team has an important role,” Patberg said.
While it wasn’t a typical victory for Indiana, it is now the Hoosiers’ best win of the season. Entering this matchup, Indiana was 1-4 versus teams in the top 25, with its only win coming at Northwestern. Indiana received a No. 4 seed in the NCAA’s first reveal of the nation’s top 16 teams, and this win will go a long way toward improving the Hoosiers’ seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Moving forward, Indiana has a road matchup in Madison, Wisconsin versus the 5-14 Badgers on Feb. 24. The Hoosiers have a great chance to extend their five-game win streak next Wednesday at Wisconsin.
Physical matchups are expected night in and night out in the Big Ten, but Indiana showed that it welcomes this type of play that led to a crucial conference win. Moren said this game was not meant for the “meek and mild,” but Indiana found a way to win.
“[Michigan] is a physical team, but we had to be physical back,” Patberg said.