No. 5 Indiana women’s basketball has crushed its opponents en route to their 7-0 record. As the Hoosiers welcome the 6-0, No. 6th-ranked University of North Carolina, one side will have to surrender its clean slate.
The battle of the undefeated’s is just one of many storylines the highly anticipated matchup caters to. Among back-to-back nights of elite programs duking it out, the key injury of a star player and two teams with similar storylines, there’s a lot to unpack.
Right on the heels of No. 10 Indiana men’s basketball topping No. 18 North Carolina 77-65 Wednesday night, the same universities will run it back in the same place. While the men’s game has been highly anticipated this entire offseason — the Tar Heels were ranked No. 1 in the preseason — it will be the women’s teams with the higher rankings at tipoff — both in the top-10.
The hype is well-deserved. North Carolina is coming off back-to-back wins over ranked teams in the Phil Knight Invitational — defeating No. 19 University of Oregon and No. 8 Iowa State University. Both wins were earned through second half comebacks, proving the Tar Heels are never out of it until the final buzzer.
Both the Hoosiers and the Tar Heels share similar stories dating back to last season. Both programs bowed out of the NCAA Tournament in the Sweet Sixteen, each losing to the final two teams who competed for the national championship — Indiana to runner-up University of Connecticut, North Carolina to defending champions University of South Carolina.
Each program returns with its top two scorers and arguably its best players from last season. For Indiana, it’s graduate guard Grace Berger and senior forward Mackenzie Holmes, while North Carolina brings back junior guards Deja Kelly and Alyssa Ustby. Berger, Holmes and Kelly were all selected to their preseason all-conference teams as well as national preseason positional award watchlists.
The star-studded court will have one less star to field it Thursday night, however. Berger, who suffered a right knee injury at the controversial Las Vegas Invitational, has been ruled out for the Indiana-North Carolina bout. In its most important game up to date, the Hoosiers will have to find a way to win without, arguably, their best player.
The competition will be elevated Thursday, but Indiana already proved it could win without Berger in Sin City. The star guard went down with her injury early in Indiana’s first contest of the event against Auburn University, whom the Hoosiers handled 96-81. Indiana defeated the University of Memphis 79-64 without Berger the following night.
When the Hoosiers needed someone to step up, it was none other than Holmes who accepted the challenge. The star forward had a monster weekend, averaging 26.5 points and 8.5 rebounds to lead Indiana to two wins. Her big weekend awarded her Big Ten Player of the Week, and a similar performance may be necessary to stay undefeated
Indiana can always rely on Holmes down low, but Berger’s absence also means the loss of the team’s primary ball handler. In Las Vegas, freshman guard Yarden Garzon and junior guard Chloe Moore-McNeil stepped up as distributors. On Thursday night, their skills will be tested on the perimeter against the Tar Heels and their star guards.
Kelly is North Carolina’s main threat, especially as a scorer. She enters Thursday’s contest averaging 17.8 points per game this season, scoring a season-high 29 in the Tar Heels’ most recent win over No. 8 Iowa State. As a strong driver who excels at drawing fouls and a reliable 3-point shot, Indiana will have its hands full trying to contain Kelly.
Ustby, who averages 15.5 points per game, is Kelly’s partner in crime in the backcourt, but the Tar Heels are much more than their two guards. All five of Carolina’s starters returned from last season’s Sweet Sixteen team, all five of which are upperclassmen. As one of the more experienced starting lineups in the country with great chemistry, a rowdy environment in Assembly Hall is something all five will be well familiar with.
The top-10 tilt tips off at 6 p.m. Thursday night in Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. The game will be broadcast on BTN.