When Indiana women’s basketball won 72-65 against Nebraska on Thursday night at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, it did so without a key piece.
Junior forward Mackenzie Holmes missed the game with a knee injury, according to a press release. Holmes is Indiana’s leading scorer, rebounder and shot blocker this season with 17.9 points and 8.2 rebounds per game.
She’s firmly at the bottom of Indiana’s list of acceptable absences. The offense counts on Holmes’ playmaking ability down low, while the defense benefits from her size with rebounds.
It seemed as though Indiana simply couldn’t afford losing a starter to injury. Along with the departures of senior guard Caitlin Hose and freshman guard Keyarah Berry earlier this season, the Hoosiers were also without junior guard Grace Waggoner. The Hoosiers were left with nine available players against Nebraska.
Without Holmes, Indiana had two clear paths to follow on offense: ask sophomore forward Kiandra Browne or senior forward Aleksa Gulbe to fill Holmes’ role or completely change its offensive identity and go small with guards.
After five minutes, it was clear that Indiana opted for the latter. Browne, who started in Holmes’ stead, spent less time in the paint and focused on setting screens on the perimeter for the team’s guards.
Indiana lacks experience behind Holmes at forward, let alone Browne. Rather than expose freshman forward Mona Zaric to rare playing time, Indiana subbed in sophomore guard Chloe Moore-McNeil for Browne.
Indiana found itself down 10-8 when it opted for this small ball rotation, but it promptly scored 8 points in the next minute thanks in part to three Nebraska turnovers.
This wasn’t a team trying to make it out alive without its leading scorer. Indiana wasn’t left searching for answers, and it certainly didn’t look lost. It was firmly in the driver’s seat afterward, a position it wasn’t going to let go of easily.
Powered by its guards and the emergence of Gulbe, Indiana took a comfortable 44-31 lead into halftime.
The influence of the Hoosiers’ depleted bench could be seen in small ways throughout the game. The Hoosiers couldn’t afford to be aggressive with fouls and run the risk of exposing their untested bench against a Nebraska lineup eager to take its first lead since the opening quarter.
Still, though, foul trouble began to rear its head in the fourth quarter. Gulbe and Browne piled up on fouls, adding two each in the fourth quarter. The Hoosiers’ smaller lineup from that point allowed the Cornhuskers to bring their deficit back into single digits.
Then Gulbe fouled out with just four minutes remaining. She’d provided most of Indiana’s size on both sides of the court throughout the game, and now her team had a lead to protect without her.
Nebraska attacked the paint immediately. Of its 22 fourth quarter points, 11 came from 6’3” freshman forward Alexis Markowski. Nebraska also constantly subbed players in and out in the game’s closing stages, which almost felt like a mockery of Indiana’s inability to do so.
In a twist of fate, Moore-McNeil provided late game heroics off the bench to maintain Indiana’s lead. Her 8 points in the fourth quarter led all Indiana players in that span. She knocked down a pair of 3-pointers and hit crucial free throws to lift Indiana to a close win.
Indiana’s win on Thursday was fortunate, yes, but its implications are concerning. Indiana’s bench was already thin, but this is the first game it went without a starter.
There’s not much Indiana can do about that issue besides waiting for injured players to recover and developing what’s left as fast as it can. But come tournament time, that won’t be an option it can afford to rely on.