There were more than a couple bad omens.
Indiana women’s basketball — a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament — hosted No. 16-seed Tennessee Tech in the first round Saturday afternoon. All-American senior forward Mackenzie Holmes didn’t play due to lingering knee soreness.
The night prior, in the men’s tournament, Farleigh Dickinson shocked the world by upsetting No. 1 seed Purdue. Then, in Assembly Hall, the purple and gold-clad Golden Eagles looked to add just the fourth chapter to the story of an unlikely Cinderella taking down one of the nation’s best.
For a quarter, it didn’t seem preposterous. Tennessee Tech shot the lights out from deep and played with a notable sense of bravado. In March, the most dangerous teams are those with nothing to lose.
The Hoosiers, an experienced and tested group, had everything in the world to lose. Despite a lackluster showing in the Big Ten Tournament, the team’s nearly four-month resume was more than enough to warrant consensus Final Four consideration.
But on Saturday, the foe appeared to possess at least a few of the crucial makings for a David vs. Goliath-esque tale — excellent shooting from range, transition quickness, pesky defense and an exciting mascot to name a few.
Most importantly, Tennessee Tech didn’t just fill the role of David from a sheer talent deficiency. They, like the Farleigh Dickinson Knights that touched the hearts of millions by slaying Purdue 7-foot-4 junior center Zach Edey, were a bit vertically challenged.
Only one Golden Eagle stood at six feet tall, a stark comparison to a Hoosier lineup that has impressive length from top to bottom. When you can shoot from deep and commit to team defense, height isn’t all that relevant.
We all love the idea of a team like the Golden Eagles making noise in the tournament. Plucky groups that should have no business contending with the likes of the Hoosiers give all of us regular folks hope.
Well, following a period in which Indiana and Tennessee Tech were knotted up at 18, Indiana must’ve taken some sort of offense. The Golden Eagles couldn’t have possibly had the gall to show up to the Hoosiers house and end their season like that.
Luckily, basketball games are more than 10 minutes. Indiana largely cruised from there on out, ultimately coming away with a 77-47 victory. What once seemed like a game the Hoosiers would be forced to scrap and escape from swiftly turned into a good-old fashioned romp.
In lieu of Holmes, freshman forward Lilly Meister was thrust into the spotlight. She’s flashed over the course of her debut campaign, exhibiting an eerily similar skillset to that of that of her star predecessor.
Towering over the Golden Eagles, Meister was excellent. Activity is a word I couldn’t help but repeat in my head watching her swat shots and hustle to the other end for layups. She finished with 7 points, four rebounds and three blocks in 20 minutes, giving a larger glimpse into her untapped potential.
Junior guard Sydney Parrish led the way in scoring with 19, and freshman guards Yarden Garzon and Lexus Bargesser look to be forging a talented nucleus for the future, but it was the play of graduate guard Grace Berger that truly turned things around.
Berger notched 13 first-half points and spearheaded a 15-0 second quarter run that put the game out of reach. Be it diving to the hoop in transition or taking defenders one-on-one in the midrange, Berger was unstoppable.
In the next round, the Hoosiers will likely need Holmes. But when nerves grew and tension started to build on Saturday, Berger stepped up. Even if the Golden Eagles continued to knock down threes all game, Berger wouldn’t have accepted defeat.
Late November, when Berger suffered a knee injury, Holmes was the catalyst the Hoosiers needed to stay afloat. Now, without Holmes, Berger decided to repay the favor. Holmes will likely be limited in the second round, but you can bet Berger and every other Hoosier will be fighting regardless.
This was all a slightly long-winded way of saying Indiana took care of the business it should have. Tennessee Tech is a formidable team with a pioneering coach in Kim Rosamond, but it would have been a historical blunder for the Hoosiers to fall.
Still, the first round is more than a prerequisite for No. 1 seeds. It’s more than a mere box to check off. In a game that seemed primed for disappointment throughout the first quarter, Indiana ensured a win big enough to satisfy its players, fans and head coach Teri Moren.
With madness swirling around the nation, the Hoosiers remained composed. There is a clear target on their backs, and so far, they’ve proved up for the task.