The rhythm of her dribbling was the heartbeat of the Berger household.
When the sun was out, Grace Berger played one-on-one against her older sister Abby in the driveway. Late at night, Grace practiced her ball handling inside the garage below her sister’s room.
Abby counted each bounce of the ball instead of counting sheep. With every dribble, Grace envisioned her dream of playing Division I basketball.
“When I first picked up a basketball, I just fell in love with it,” Grace said.
Grace, 20, is a sophomore and starting guard for IU women’s basketball.Since coming off the bench in most games her freshman year, she has become a cornerstone of the Hoosiers’ offense. She averages 13.3 points and 5.1 rebounds while playing 34.2 minutes per game.
Before she entered Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, Grace said a conversation with her Amateur Athletic Union coach Tim Barnett alerted her to the possibility of never reaching her goal. Before she started high school, Barnett told her that her quiet demeanor hindered her leadership abilities.
If she wanted to have success in high school and achieve her dreams of playing at the Division I level, she would need to become more vocal and grow in her confidence as a leader.
The opportunity to pursue her passion in a leadership role came in her freshman year at Sacred Heart Academy in Louisville, Kentucky. Although Grace was just a freshman, her veteran teammates looked up to her.
When teammates had rough days or needed encouragement, Grace was the first to text them after practices or pull them aside for a conversation. Sacred Heart head coach Donna Moir said Grace’s pride in caring for her teammates and becoming a better leader was infectious.
Grace also grew by studying film from games with her dad, the person she shares the deepest love of basketball with.
“He’s always been such a good dad to me, and he puts an emphasis on how I could separate myself by my actions and lead by my actions,” Grace said.
While rewatching different plays, the two strategized on how Grace could improve her playmaking decisions. This enabled her to use these lessons as opportunities to see the floor differently and get her teammates more involved on the offense.
“They were always on a different level of conversation than I was,” Abby said. “I understand basketball, but it’s a whole new level with them.”
Grace’s dad also took her to watch women’s basketball games during high school at the University of Louisville. After the games, Grace walked onto the court and spoke with players such as Shoni Schimmel. The post-game conversations gave Grace the chance to ask questions about how to become a better leader and competitor.
With motivation from her father and her favorite players, Grace formed a deeper bond with her teammates and in her junior year led the Valkyries to their seventh district championship.
“You knew she’d be a D1 athlete before she ever walked into Sacred Heart,” Moir said. “When she said something, you knew to pay attention.”
Grace earned recognition in 2018 as a finalist for Kentucky Miss Basketball and a five-star ranking by ESPN. She committed to IU in her junior year after meeting head coach Teri Moren.
“Coach Moren constantly talked about the future of the program and where she wanted to take it, the vision she had for it and the part that she thought I could play in that,” Grace said.
IU had just won the 2018 NIT tournament and lost its all-time leading scorer in Tyra Buss when Grace arrived on campus. As the coaching staff reconfigured its plans for the season, Grace needed time getting comfortable and familiar with a new role on her new team.
Her signature pull-up jumpshot and flashy dribbling were helpful components of the IU offense her freshman year. But with many voices on the 2018-19 Hoosier roster, Grace said she was passive and shied away from being the vocal leader that she was at Sacred Heart.
Although Grace would need a full year to gain the confidence she has now, like most freshmen, the guard took advantage of the moments to listen when she wasn’t speaking.
Grace observed the communication and embraced the encouragement coming from veterans like IU alumna Kym Royster. Royster remembered what it was like to be a freshman away from home and reminded Grace about the importance of communication and leading by example.
Grace said Royster would text after tough practices, a reminder of what she used to do at Sacred Heart. The former Hoosier also motivated Grace to shoot with confidence and become a contributor that the team needed. She was determined to use those observations for her benefit.
In the final five games of her freshman season, Grace nearly doubled her scoring average. She felt confident to shoot more, which helped the Hoosier offense in her first tournament appearance.
Grace was one of the top scorers in IU’s second-round loss to the University of Oregon in the 2019 NCAA tournament. She played 23 minutes off the bench, scoring 11 points and finishing with four rebounds.
The thrill of the tournament experience, combined with a desire to contribute more to the team, motivated Grace to train over the summer.
“It was hard for me last year because I couldn’t help my team succeed,” Grace said. “There were times where they needed me to come off the bench, and I wasn't necessarily ready to do that. So that pushed me to want to work harder during the off-season.”
Grace shot thousands of 3-pointers and worked on her ball handling in the summer months. Moir said she received thank you texts from IU assistant coach Rhet Wierzba who was helping the rising sophomore.
With five freshmen arriving the fall of 2019, Grace’s work on the court and in the weight room prepared her to join junior guard Ali Patberg as a starter in the backcourt.
Her highest-scoring game of the season and first career double-double cameJan. 27 against Minnesota.
IU shot just 33% in the opening quarter and needed someone to step up. Grace turned the game around.
The sophomore scored the final 10 points of the second quarter and IU’s first eight of the third. This prompted Minnesota head coach Lindsay Whalen to yell “Get her!” whenever the ball touched Grace’s fingertips.
A road game against Nebraska on Feb. 9 marked the first time in her career when Grace had the chance to win the game for IU.
She had missed 10 shots that night, some contested and some open layups. Her hands turned red from hitting them in frustration, but in spite of her shooting struggles, the starters and coaches cheered her on.
The game was tied with just 38 seconds remaining. The Hoosiers needed a basket, and they looked to Grace.
Freshman forward Jorie Allen and junior guard Keyanna Warthen shouted “she can’t guard you” when Grace got the ball off the inbound. The sophomore leaned into her teammates' trust.
“When you hear that from your peers, it doesn’t matter what I say,” Moren said. “What matters is what her teammates think of her.”
Crossing the ball from her left to right hand, Grace drove toward the right side of the basket, dribbled past two defenders and finished with a reverse layup. Her teammates went from sitting on the edge of their seats to high- fiving their star guard who had given IU the lead and seconds later, the win.
Grace embraces her dad and Abby when they walk onto the court. Her dad comes to every home game, and Abby comes to most. They used to watch Grace ask collegiate athletes for autographs and leadership advice.
Now, she’s given the Sharpie and offers words of wisdom for younger basketball players.
“It’s easy for me to give them advice because it doesn’t feel like that long ago that I was that little girl going up to players after the game and just admiring their every move,” Grace said. “I realize how big of an impact I can have on them. It’s really special to me and something I take really seriously.”
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