Junior forward Mackenzie Holmes went down with an injury suffered in practice following Indiana women’s basketball’s Jan. 5 win over Wisconsin on the road. Indiana fared well without her, going 6-2 since.
Outside the realm of playing, Holmes had done whatever she could to aid the Hoosiers. She had still been on the bench during most of Indiana’s games, offering encouragement and advice to teammates or getting hyped for big plays.
There had been teases of Holmes’ return to the lineup before tonight. Among them came minutes before Indiana’s game against Michigan State on Feb. 12 when she dressed and participated in warmups despite not playing.
All of these progressions led to Thursday night against Northwestern — the return of the Mack.
She had missed eight games, so rust was expected. Between being held to 6 points and misplaced passes, Holmes wasn’t her usual, paint-dominating self. Luckily for the Hoosiers, Holmes’ production wasn’t needed in their 69-58 win over the Wildcats.
Of all teams for Indiana to leverage its size against, Northwestern’s small lineup provided the perfect opportunity to. One of Northwestern’s starting forwards, senior Courtney Shaw, is 6 feet tall. Two of Indiana’s starting guards, graduate student Ali Patberg and senior Grace Berger, almost match up to the opposing bigs at 5 foot, 11 inches and 6 feet, respectively.
But the Wildcats came prepared despite their size disadvantage. If they played to the Hoosiers’ physical style, they’d lose, so they simply didn’t. It was almost the perfect recipe, as Northwestern’s guards ended the game with 48 combined points of the team’s 58 total.
This was still Holmes’ first game back from injury, so she played a season-low 23 minutes. She’d come close to those minutes in games this season prior to her injury, but those came in blowouts where her talents weren’t needed.
Indiana had options when it came time for Holmes to sub out.
If Northwestern had a smaller lineup on the court? Enter sophomore guard Chloe Moore-McNeil. If Northwestern opted for more size? Send in sophomore forward Kiandra Browne.
Countering Northwestern’s high-powered guard lineup took priority for the Hoosiers, so Moore-McNeil played 22 minutes to Browne’s 10. Moore-McNeil may not have scored in those 22 minutes, but she wasn’t asked to and didn’t try to force anything on offense, only attempting four shots.
Moore-McNeil was on the court to defend Northwestern’s guards, particularly senior Veronica Burton and graduate student Lauryn Satterwhite, who led Northwestern in scoring with 20 and 14 points, respectively.
Ultimately, the Hoosiers’ size advantage became too much for the Wildcats to escape Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall with a win. Senior forward Aleksa Gulbe made sure of it, leading the way offensively with her third double-double of the season with 12 rebounds and a team-leading 20 points.
Northwestern was left hopeless in the battle of the paint, and nothing showed it more than when Gulbe made a shot in the paint over three Wildcat defenders in the fourth quarter.
It wasn’t just Gulbe, either. Berger scored 14 points largely off of shots over her undersized counterparts. Graduate student guard Nicole Cardaño-Hillary simply outplayed her competition, scoring 17 points.
The main takeaway from this game will be Holmes’ return and easing her back into her previous, dominant role. Indiana head coach Teri Moren handled Holmes’ return with caution, keeping her minutes light and being strategic about when to sub her out.
Thursday’s win showed that Indiana is far more than its star player, and it takes a team to go far in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.