Indiana went straight to what’s been the easiest source of scoring all year.
Mackenzie Holmes was fouled on the Hoosiers’ first possession of the game, knocked down both free throws and asserted herself in the post immediately. It was clear from the opening tip that head coach Teri Moren stressed feeding Holmes, and it helped Indiana get off to a quick start.
“Whenever we can get the ball in Mackenzie’s hands early that’s a good thing,” Grace Berger said.
Holmes scored eight of her 13 points in the first quarter, and Indiana did not look back on its way to the first Sweet 16 appearance in program history, defeating Belmont 70-48.
“There’s a lot of excitement in the locker room,” Berger said. “Any time you are the first team in the program to do something it’s a big deal.”
When Moren sat down for the postgame press conference, it was clear that the Hoosiers were more than just excited in the locker room. But after all Indiana has gone through this season, she said it was worth it.
“Wet pants, wet shirt, wet hair, in order to watch the pure joy that these kids have right now is well worth it,” Moren said.
— Indiana Women’s Basketball (@IndianaWBB) March 24, 2021
Due to Belmont’s lack of a strong inside presence, the Hoosiers were able to shake up Belmont’s usual rotations as the Bruins quickly got into foul trouble.
Standing at 6-foot-3, Holmes had an obvious advantage down low to begin the game, and the starting frontcourt duo of 6-foot-1 Allison Luly and Conley Chinn didn’t have the answers to slow her down. Luly finished with zero points and fouled out midway through the fourth quarter, forcing Belmont to look to Madison Bartley off the bench to stop Holmes.
But the 6-foot-3 freshman also picked up three quick fouls in the first 14 minutes of the game and fouled out in the third quarter. Digging even deeper into the bench, Belmont tried the 6-foot-2 sophomore Cam Browning, but she had four fouls in 19 minutes of play.
Belmont couldn’t guard Holmes, but also couldn’t keep Aleksa Gulbe off the glass, as she finished with 15 rebounds. Moren said she is proud of Gulbe’s rebounding ability against Belmont, but her 3-for-12 shooting effort will need to improve moving forward.
“A lot of the things [Aleksa] does don’t show up in the stat sheet,” Berger said. “But she’s by far one of the most important players for us on the court.”
This marks Indiana’s 20th win of the season, which sets another program record of six consecutive 20-win seasons. It also snaps Belmont’s 11-game win streak dating back to Feb. 13, sending home the potential Cinderella team.
It was another day at the office for first-team All-Big Ten player Grace Berger, as she paced the Hoosiers with 17 points, six rebounds, three assists and three steals.
“I’m someone I hope my team can depend on night in and night out,” Berger said. “Not turning the ball over...and being a steady presence for my team.”
Berger has been an example of steady improvement during her three years in Bloomington, but this was something Moren always expected.
“We knew when she committed to our program that we would have a player who will take us to new heights,” Moren said.
Berger’s backcourt partner Ali Patberg helped Berger control the pace of the game, and Patberg’s experience and decision-making led to 13 points and four rebounds.
After setting a Big Ten record for fewest points given up in an NCAA tournament game versus VCU, the Hoosiers’ defense continued its stingy play. Belmont struggled to find open looks, and shot just 32 percent from the field and 19 percent from beyond the arc.
Belmont leading scorer freshman Destinee Wells was one of few Bruins to find their stroke, scoring 16 to keep up with her 17.9-point-per-game average. Nicole Cardaño-Hillary drew the initial assignment on Wells, and her defense, along with the help of Berger and Patberg, still managed to force an inefficient 7-for-20 shooting effort from Wells.
“We tried to wear her legs down, work for everything she got and make sure nothing was easy,” Berger said.
Belmont finished the first half shooting 1-for-12 and did not score in the final 4:27 of the half. With this win, Indiana advances to the Sweet 16 where it will face the Mercado Region’s top seed, the NC State Wolfpack. This game will tip off at 6 p.m. ET on March 28 and can be seen on ESPN2.
Similar to the Hoosiers, NC State has cruised its way to two double-digit wins en route to the Sweet 16. NC State won its first round game against North Carolina A&T by 21 points, and defeated the eighth-seeded South Florida Bulls by 12. But as Indiana survives and advances, Moren and her team know the intensity levels will only increase.
It will be an unprecedented situation for the Hoosiers as they prepare for the program’s first Sweet 16 appearance. Indiana has set program record after program record this season, but Moren hasn’t been afraid to talk about the team’s goals.
She stressed before the tournament started that the Hoosiers don’t want to settle. A deep run in March is now in their sights, but the best team Indiana will see to this point of the season is waiting ahead.
The Wolfpack boast four double-digit scorers, led by Elissa Cunane’s 16.3 points per game and 40 percent 3-point shooting. NC State has won 10 games in a row, with its last loss coming on Feb. 7 at North Carolina.
After the game, Berger reflected on why she chose to come play for Moren and the Hoosiers. She was convinced of Moren’s goal to make deep runs in the NCAA Tournament when she was in high school, and these visions are now starting to come to fruition.
“Every one of my teammates bought in to that vision,” Berger said. “...Believing we can do things that have never been done before.”
It will likely take Indiana’s best game of the season to take down NC State, but Moren and the Hoosiers believe they are ready for the challenge. As Indiana reaches never-before-seen heights in the NCAA Tournament, Moren said her team is hungry for more.
After missing out on last year’s tournament because of COVID-19, the Hoosiers are not letting this opportunity slip away.
“There’s no question we were bitterly disappointed on March 11 last year when things were shut down,” Moren said. “I think that’s what’s fueled this group this entire year.”