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Indiana 79, Michigan State 67: Gulbe, Holmes quickly becoming a crucial tandem for IU

Aleksa Gulbe let her emotions show, flexing and yelling toward the Indiana bench after finishing a layup through contact at the beginning of the third quarter Saturday. Gulbe had a tough first half, scoring just two points and turning the ball over twice, but this basket proved to be a breakthrough moment for the sophomore.

After converting the old-fashioned three-point play, Indiana went on a 10-0 run to regain its first lead since late in the first quarter. Gulbe scored nine second-half points, and showed just how difficult it will be for opposing teams to guard her and freshman Mackenzie Holmes inside. The duo combined to score 29 points and grab 10 rebounds, leading No. 14 Indiana to a 79-67 win in its Big Ten opener against Michigan State.

Indiana struggled in the first half, turning the ball over 11 times and allowing six Michigan State 3-pointers. But like the Hoosiers’ performance against Youngstown State, a switch was flipped in the second half. Ali Patberg lead the way with 23 points, seven rebounds and four assists, but it was the duo inside that the Spartans couldn’t guard in the second half.

Holmes scored nine of the team’s final 11 points in the third period, giving Indiana a five-point lead heading into the fourth quarter. It was her spark off the bench — paired with Gulbe’s versatility in the starting lineup — that propelled Indiana to this win.

Gulbe has dealt with foul trouble in recent games, picking up four against UCLA on Dec. 22 and two in the first half versus Youngstown State on Dec. 15. But Saturday night, she committed just one, giving head coach Teri Moren the ability to effectively rotate Gulbe and Holmes throughout the game.

Indiana has been dangerous offensively this year because of its depth, with five players averaging at least 10 points. While Indiana bench players besides Holmes only scored four points Saturday, the rotation of Gulbe and Holmes is a strength the Hoosiers should hope to lean on going forward.

The best one-two punches in basketball often come from guards who work well together, or a lethal pick-and-roll combo, but Indiana's duo is different. Gulbe and Holmes may seldom step foot on the court at the same time together, but they complement each other as well as any other tandem for the Hoosiers.

Gulbe has started each game for Indiana, aside from the team’s final game of the Paradise Jam versus Washington State after suffering an injury. In the lone game without Gulbe in the starting lineup, Holmes scored 14 points and grabbed eight rebounds. It would have been easy for Moren to replace Gulbe with Holmes in the starting five after the freshman’s phenomenal start to the season, but Moren stuck with her rotation, which has given opposing teams fits in recent games.

As the more experienced sophomore, Gulbe provides versatility for IU in the starting lineup. Her ability to step outside the lane and knock down mid-range jumpers and 3-point shots gives Indiana’s offense a wrinkle that not many teams are able to guard. Gulbe is technically the team’s center, but Moren has said multiple times this year that she doesn’t like to assign Gulbe with a specific position.

Heading into the season, Holmes may not have even been the most highly anticipated freshman on the roster, because of 2019 Indiana Miss Basketball Jorie Allen, but she has quickly proven to be the most important freshman to the Hoosiers’ success. While Gulbe can score in a variety of ways within the Indiana offense, Holmes is a more traditional post player, which actually diversifies the Hoosier lineup.

As the season has gone along, Holmes has learned to run the floor in transition, which has lead to many easy baskets. Moren has said this year that Holmes has improved greatly at demanding the ball when she establishes position on the block. Holmes has a great feel around the rim and possesses quick footwork that allows her to maneuver around defenders.

Gulbe and Holmes play different styles as forwards, and this contrast is what makes Indiana’s offense so hard to game plan against. Not many post defenders have the ability to step outside the lane to guard Gulbe as well as battle with Holmes in the post, and Saturday night's win over Sparty is a perfect example of that.

Moving on in Big Ten play, the Hoosiers now prepare for a 3 p.m. matchup with Rutgers in Piscataway on New Year’s Eve. Rutgers has had a similar start to the season as Indiana, sitting at 11-1 and winning its first conference game versus Wisconsin. The Hoosiers will look to snap Rutgers’ seven-game win streak as they head into the new year with one of the most dangerous forward duos in the country.

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