Trailing by 2 points late in the third quarter, junior guard Grace Berger scanned inside, hoping to feed the hot hand in forward Mackenzie Holmes.
Once Holmes shielded a University of Arizona defender enough for a post entry, Berger made a perfect bounce pass to her free hand. Holmes turned left, floated it over another opponent and banked it in for her 20th point of the night.
Like it has all year, the inside-out mentality benefitted the Hoosiers in their most important game of the season.
“Early on, (Holmes) was just catching them in space,” head coach Teri Moren said at a post game press conference. “Some of our guards were making some really good reads. She was scoring quick.”
The sophomore from Gorham, Maine, registered her 12th career game with 20 or more points.
Despite Holmes’ strong performance, a poor fourth quarter doomed No. 4 seed IU in its 66-53 Elite Eight loss to No. 3 Arizona Monday night in San Antonio. The Wildcats outscored the Hoosiers 20-9 in the final 10 minutes.
In the first three quarters, Holmes established position within a couple feet of the basket. Once she received a pass, it was a quick turn and shot with only a minuscule contest. This formula worked for a while as she tallied 20 points on 9-12 shooting in the first 30 minutes.
But as her endurance faltered, so did her production.
With less than 6 minutes remaining, the Wildcats’ stingy defense, as Moren called it, forced Holmes out closer to the mid-range. From there, she settled for a flat 10-footer that came up short. It wasn’t a horrible shot selection, but it disallowed Holmes to use her fancy footwork for a higher-percentage shot.
“I thought she fatigued in the second half,” Moren said. “This is not an excuse, but we’ve played a lot of games in this short period of time and we have a short bench.”
IU has played four games in eight days in which Holmes has logged 129 out of a potential 160 minutes. But she’s also right that it’s no excuse for your top scorer to have 0 points in the fourth quarter if you want to compete for NCAA championships, and Holmes understands that.
“I’m going to mature a lot from this and I’m going to be better because of it,” Holmes said.
Defensively, IU’s game plan against Arizona was centered around containing Aari McDonald, the NCAA active points leader. Since the Hoosiers elected to aggressively defend and sometimes overplay the perimeter, the spotlight shined even brighter on Holmes and junior forward Aleksa Gulbe to hold down the paint.
Holmes answered the call with five rejections on the night, including three in the fourth quarter, but it wasn’t enough to stop the Pac-12 Player of the Year from putting up 33 points.
“She is as fast as a player that we have faced all year,” Moren said. “There is a reason she scored 2,000 plus points in her career. She is every bit as good as we thought she was.”
With Monday’s loss, the Hoosiers ended the 2020-21 campaign with an overall record of 21-6. Along with its well-documented historic postseason run, IU also set a program record with 16 conference wins in the regular season and advanced to its first Elite Eight in program history.
Individually, Holmes averaged a team high 17.8 points, 7.6 rebounds and set an IU record back in November by going 13-13 from the floor against Eastern Kentucky University. She was also its consistent rim protector, ranked first in the Big Ten and ninth nationally with 2.9 blocks per game.
Not bad for a sophomore, right?
With three years of eligibility remaining due to the NCAA granting all student-athletes an extra year due to the pandemic, everything points to Holmes upgrading her game even more. She made a sizable leap – increased scoring by 7 points per game – from last season, and with the majority of her peers returning, a third-year jump is likely.
Monday’s loss understandably stings, but Holmes and the Hoosiers have aspirations to further their success story at IU.
“Now that we got a taste of it, we’re all going to be hungry for more,” Holmes said.