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‘No secret sauce’: How Grace Berger, Mackenzie Holmes transformed themselves into two of Big Ten’s best

A simple entry pass, a spin move to the left block and two easy points for Mackenzie Holmes.

Grace Berger couldn’t help but understate how impressive her third triple-double of the season was.

“When you have teammates that can make shots like that, it’s not too hard,” Berger said.

Grace Berger runs down the court as Indiana plays Iowa on March 3, 2021. (Photo courtesy of IU Athletics)

Indiana head coach Teri Moren didn’t sub Berger out down the stretch of Indiana’s 90-65 win over Penn State on Feb. 10. She wanted Berger to complete her third triple-double of the season, and third in program history. 

Forward Mackenzie Holmes said she knew when Berger only needed one more assist to complete this feat, but didn’t feel any pressure to help her teammate. The two have built a strong relationship over the past two seasons, and confidence in each other is clear on the court. 

“That kind of took the pressure off because I knew she was going to make a great pass in order for me to get a quick score,” Holmes said.

When the two spoke after the game on Feb. 10, you wouldn’t have thought a program record was set on Branch McCracken Court just minutes before. Berger and Holmes were calm. Neither could answer a question without giving the other credit. 

On March 8, Berger and Holmes were named to the first-team All-Big Ten. The two have helped Indiana set multiple program records this season: the highest ranking in the AP Top 25 poll at No. 9 and the most conference wins in a single season with 16. 

It’s a great honor to see the hard work that me and the other people who got recognized put in over the offseason,” Holmes said. “But these accolades come at a time where I am very focused on winning games.”

Moren said the two have developed greatly in their time as Hoosiers, and it is not by accident. Through hard work outside of scheduled practice time and buying into Moren’s program identity, the two have developed into two of the Big Ten’s best. But for Holmes, this wasn’t always the expectation when she was in high school.

A relentless rim runner

Holmes did not compete in the EYBL circuit, which is a league comprised of the top AAU teams in the country. Instead, Moren discovered her through a unique connection. Associate head coach Rhett Wierzba’s brother Ben happened to see Holmes play in high school, and was intrigued enough to suggest that Rhett should watch her play.

“I think I found a kid that you might really want to see,” Moren remembers Rhett telling her. 

Moren said the first time she went to watch Holmes, she instantly fell in love. The biggest trait that stood out to Moren was Holmes’ dedication to running the floor as a five.

“I just couldn’t believe not only the commitment but the consistency that Mack showed game after game after game with wanting to beat everyone down the floor,” Moren said.

Mackenzie Holmes dribbles against Minnesota on Dec. 23, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Minnesota Athletics)

Holmes played for an AAU team called the Maine Firecrackers. Moren said that because Holmes wasn’t playing against the best of the best AAU teams, the coaching staff didn’t realize until last season how her game would translate to the college level.

“She was playing other AAU teams that they would just beat,” Moren said. “A lot of that had to do with Mack, no one being able to measure up to her or to guard her.”

Although Moren knew right away that she wanted Holmes to be a Hoosier, she wasn’t always confident that she could gain Holmes’ commitment. Being from Gorham, Maine, Moren thought the long-distance move might be a difficult ask.

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. 

Moren thinks a big factor in Holmes’ commitment was a decision made by her brother Cam. Cam is a member of the women’s basketball team’s practice squad, and Moren said this has made Holmes’ transition to college a little bit easier. 

In Holmes’ first season as a Hoosier, Moren often mentioned how Holmes needed to improve her post defense and footwork. Holmes started just two games last year, but she made offensive efficiency her calling card. Holmes shot 63 percent from the field, and scored 10.8 points per game while playing under 20 minutes per game. 

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As she transitioned to her sophomore year, Holmes said conditioning has been a huge part of her development because she is playing 30.3 minutes per game this year. She said conditioning plays a vital role in keeping her efficiency numbers up, which is key to her game.

“I took it very seriously and tried to get in the best shape I could,” Holmes said.

The gym rat

The jump Holmes has made from her freshman to sophomore year also represents the kind of development that Berger has experienced en route to being a first-team All-Big Ten player. During the 2018-2019 season, Berger came off the bench behind experienced guards Ali Patberg, Jaelynn Penn and Bendu Yeaney.

As a freshman, Berger played 20 minutes per game, but was not relied upon as the consistent scorer she is now. But still, Moren said she could see something inside Berger that would lead her to becoming a special player. Since Berger joined the Hoosiers, Moren said it is clear that Berger is “ate up” with the game. 

“I tell everybody all of the time, there is no secret sauce,” Moren said. “There’s no magic pill to becoming a great player, it happens because of your work.”

 

It doesn’t take a coach’s suggestion to get Berger to work in the gym, but associate head coach Glenn Box has played an integral part in Berger’s development. Watching Berger play, she can score at the rim, has a signature midrange pull-up jump shot and can knock down 3s.

“She continues to set the bar high for those around her,” Moren said. “She makes everybody around her better, but she also sets this bar what being great looks like.”

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Moren said Berger is strong with the ball, and her 4.7 assists per game prove she knows what to do with the ball. But everyday at practice, Box tries to make Berger better by putting her in uncomfortable situations. This has helped Berger become comfortable in pressure situations when Indiana needs it most. 

“Grace Berger is special,” Moren said. “She is a special kind of player, and obviously we are lucky that she is a Hoosier.”

And as Indiana prepares for what Moren hopes is a deep NCAA Tournament run, the combination of Holmes and Berger is as important as ever. Indiana opens the tournament with a first-round matchup against the 13-seeded VCU Rams at 2 p.m. ET on March 22.

Grace Berger takes a shot during the game between the Purdue Boilermakers and the Indiana Hoosiers at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall in on March 6, 2021. (Photo by Xavier Daniels/Indiana Athletics)

When talking to the media on Selection Monday, Moren wasn’t afraid to set goals for her team. Moren and the Hoosiers were clearly disappointed in their early exit in the Big Ten tournament after losing to Michigan State, but they are ready to look past that. 

“You have to shelf that,” Moren said. “Ultimately our goal is to get into the NCAA tournament year in and year out. We talk about making deep runs and playing for not just a Sweet 16, but an Elite Eight, a Final Four. We’re not afraid to talk about it because you have to.”

My name is Jack Ankony and I am a sophomore from Mount Prospect, Illinois. I am a huge Chicago sports fan who loves to write and talk about sports.

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