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Return of the Mack: No. 5 Indiana beats Northwestern in Mackenzie Holmes’ first game back from injury

The wait is over. Mack is finally back. 

But junior forward Mackenzie Holmes’ return after missing eight games with an injury wasn’t the only bright spot Thursday night in the annual Pink Game, as No. 5 Indiana defeated Northwestern 69-58 in a physical Big Ten battle, advancing to 11-3 in conference play and 19-4 overall. 

Not only did the Hoosiers redeem themselves after a flustering upset against unranked Nebraska on Monday night, but Indiana held Northwestern to only five free-throw attempts, a factor that aided in head coach Teri Moren’s 100th Assembly Hall win Thursday evening.

“You look at some of their (Northwestern’s) previous games, the games that they won, they’re getting to the free-throw line either 22, 23, 25 times,” Moren said. “That was a real important key going into this contest was keeping them off the free-throw line.

Wildcats senior guard Veronica Burton was a big threat entering this matchup, averaging 18 points and scoring 20 Thursday night. She upped her basketball IQ this past summer playing on Team USA alongside IU guard Grace Berger. 

As Burton leads the Big Ten in blocks and second in assists, Moren and her staff knew that they couldn’t have her controlling the game defensively by giving up the ball. 

“She’s (Burton) obviously the head of the snake,” Moren said. “But we also knew that she’s kind of slippery off the ball screen.” 

Whether it was a high ball or a horn screen, Indiana’s post-plugs protected the rim from Burton. Tip your cap to senior forward Aleksa Gulbe, as she made it very difficult for Burton to get into the paint and find open shooters. 

The Cats have prided themselves on not allowing the ball to go in that matchup defense, but they were playing blizzard and were out of position in their defensive slides, and Gulbe took advantage of that by sneaking in off the weak side, enervating Northwestern’s communication. 

Gulbe was excellent offensively — finding openings and cracks in the Cats defense — recording her third double-double of the season with 20 points and 12 rebounds. She was a Northwestern assassin Thursday, and her four-point play in the third is what really got the momentum going in IU’s favor down the final stretch.

“We think she’s (Gulbe) one of the best, or the best, stretch forward defenders in our league,” Moren said. “We just rely on her so much.”

Next to Gulbe, guard Nicole Cardaño-Hillary continues to be the small but mighty motor of this Indiana team. She added 17 points, four rebounds, and had back-to-back triples early in the second. The way she was repeatedly left wide open leaves Indiana looking in perfect mid-February form. 

Berger, who also played with a fractured nose, added 15 points, her 20th time scoring in double-figures in 23 games this season. The Hoosiers shot 60 percent in the fourth behind seven points from both Berger and Cardaño-Hillary, strengthening their defensive lead. 

“Not only because of her (Berger’s) ability to attack and pull up and score, but also for her ability to facilitate,” Moren said. “With the ball in Grace Berger’s hands down the stretch, we knew that she was going to make the right decision as she came off the ball screen.”

The Hall warmly welcomed Holmes back Thursday after being out since Jan. 5 due to injury. Indiana certainly missed Holmes’ defensive presence and stat-line, and it was impressive how fearless she played considering her knee surgery was less than a month ago. 

“She looked like she hadn’t played in a month,” Moren said. “That will all come back because she’s just too good of a player.”

Holmes posted six rebounds and six points for the Hoosiers, and Moren said that they just needed her to be comfortable and 100 percent sure that she was in the right mindset if she wanted to play Thursday. While she didn’t come back scoring her average 18, it was a perfect tune-up game for her. 

Looking toward the final stretch of the regular season, three of Indiana’s tougher tests of the Big Ten are creeping up, and the brutal loss against Nebraska was somewhat of a wakeup call before these tall tasks. 

“We were bitterly disappointed that we let that one slip away from us,” Moren said of the Nebraska loss. “So, we’re going to have to control our own destiny as we go down the stretch.” 

Indiana will be back in Assembly Hall Saturday at 4 p.m. for the first of the team’s back-to-back games against Iowa.

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