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'Grace does what Grace does': Grace Berger delivers as Indiana advances to Sweet Sixteen

Grace Berger started to her right, pounding the ball on the hardwood, darting past a screen, still going to her right, then hesitating, ever so briefly, before continuing to dribble to her right. Indiana (3-seed) was tied with Princeton (11-seed) 52-52 on Monday night. There were just over 30 seconds remaining in the game. The Hoosiers hadn’t made a field goal in more than four minutes. The winner would advance to the Sweet Sixteen. The loser’s season would be over.

Then Berger did a spin, twirling her back toward the basket, the defender right behind her. All the while, keeping control of the ball.

"...Growing up I was told that if I could handle the ball there was always a spot for me on the team by my dad," Berger said.

Berger said she has the same dribbling routine now before the game as she did was she was seven.

“Just consistent work at it,” Berger said. “It's kind of effortless for me now.”

And now she was in Assembly Hall, using those ball-handling skills, slipping into a mosh of black Princeton jerseys. The play was called for Berger. Associate head coach Rhet Wierzba is in charge of calling plays in special situations. He runs the play by Indiana head coach Teri Moren.

“He always checks in, is this who we want the ball -- in Grace's hands,” Moren said postgame. “We always just kind of laugh and say, well, of course we want her to go make the play for us.”

The play worked. Berger glided through the lane. She exploded up, scooping the ball with her right hand before crashing downward. The ball hit off the backboard, then dropped through the basket. Indiana led by two with 28.2 seconds remaining.

The Hoosiers didn't give up the lead. Ali Patberg got a steal. Aleksa Gulbe knocked down two free throws to put the Hoosiers up by four. Princeton threw in a 3-pointer as time expired. But Indiana won the game. The final score: Indiana 56, Princeton 55. For the second consecutive season, Indiana has advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. There were many key contributors for Indiana. Mackenzie Holmes and Nicole Cardaño-Hillary each scored in double figures. Chloe Moore-McNeil had eight points off the bench. But Berger had a game-high 15 points on 7-for-14 from the field, along with seven rebounds. And she had that crucial basket to put Indiana up and help the Hoosiers move on.

“Grace does what Grace does,” Moren said.

This is Berger’s fourth season with the IU program. But years before now, back when Moren was recruiting Berger out of Sacred Heart High School in Louisville, Kentucky, the coach saw something special. Berger scored more than 1,800 points in her prep career and was a finalist for Miss Kentucky Basketball in 2018. Moren marveled at her ball handling.

“Watching her in a practice, the thing that jumps off is just how exceptional she is with her ball handling and the ball in her hands,” Moren said. “I mean, I remember sitting there thinking, she dribbles the ball way better than any guy that I have right now on my roster. Again, credit her. She's a worker, and she's in the gym constantly trying to get better.”

Berger began her IU career in the 2018-19 season. She made four starts as a freshman, which became 30 starts as a sophomore. By last season, she was averaging 15.4 points per game and led the nation in triple-doubles with three. Success of the program grew as Berger’s career went on. Indiana made the Round of 32 her freshman season. The NCAA Tournament was canceled her sophomore season. Then last season, Indiana made a run to the Elite Eight.

Grace Berger pulls up for a shot against Princeton in the NCAA Tournament's Round of 32 at Assembly Hall on Monday. (Courtesy photo/IU Athletics)

“I remember four years ago we were just struggling to even get in the tournament, and then we got that win and it was huge for us,” Berger said. “So now to see us get to the Sweet Sixteen two years in a row, it's just really special, and it's something that never gets old.”

Over this summer, Berger was part of the Team USA gold medal-winning squad in the 2021 AmeriCup. “It just gave her that much more confidence,” Moren said at IU's media day. Asked about becoming more vocal at IU's media day, Berger said it was something she was improving and still described herself as shy. “When I came in, I think it’s been well-documented that I’m very shy, still am shy,” Berger said.

That, however, doesn't mean she isn’t competitive. “I don't know that 'introvert' is a great way to describe her, she’s just not a big talker, right,” Moren said at IU’s media day. “But she’s emotional. We’ve seen that. She’s competitive.”

“Grace is competitive in everything that we do, whether it's conditioning in the summer or -- I mean, in the summertime what sticks out to me is when we're playing two-on-two against our assistant coaches during workouts,” Holmes said postgame. “We get super competitive during that I would say. It gets a little chippy.”

Indiana has had a relatively adverse season. In late December, Indiana had a game postponed due to COVID-19 protocols within the Rutgers program. In January, Indiana had another two games postponed, this time due to COVID-19 protocols within the IU program. Holmes, a key starter, underwent surgery on her knee (before returning later in the season). Then another game was postponed due to COVID-19 protocols within the Illinois program. At the end of February, Indiana lost its last three regular-season games.

Eventually, Indiana found its groove in the Big Ten Tournament, advancing to the finals before falling to Iowa. They took care of UNC-Charlotte in the Round of 64 in the NCAA Tournament. Berger has been an important part of Indiana’s season. She entered Monday’s game averaging 16.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game.

On Monday against Princeton, Indiana’s 10-point halftime lead began to be whittled away. The Hoosiers went cold on offense, scoring only six points in the third quarter, four of which came from Berger. It was a near collapse from IU. Berger had six turnovers. “My ball handling skills weren't as good today as they usually are,” she admitted after the game. With 1:12 remaining, Princeton went up by one point.

But then Berger knocked down one of two free throws to tie the game. Princeton missed at the other end. Indiana set up the play for Berger. Why call it for her, Moren was asked after the game.

“Well, because she's Grace, right?”

Berger spun and sliced through the lane. This time, her ball-handling was clean. She finished with a layup. Indiana won.

“Big-time players make big-time plays,” Moren said. “That's exactly what G did today for us.”

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