BLOOMINGTON — Finality is an endlessly difficult thing for humans to come to grips with.
It presents itself in different settings, taking different forms, and carrying different meanings. Sometimes it’s a slow burn, like seeing an ailing relative on their deathbed. And sometimes it’s instantaneous, like opening a rejection letter from a dream college.
For Indiana women’s basketball, Monday night presented the instantaneous version, in its most painful form, with meanings that the players will need a long time to grasp. Indiana, a No. 1 seed for the first time in program history, saw a golden opportunity to reach its first Final Four slip away.
And after that heartbreaking 70-68 loss to Miami (Fla.) at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, IU’s locker room displayed the raw emotion that comes with that territory.
“It’s hard to put into words right now,” Mackenzie Holmes said during Indiana’s press conference. “Just a lot of emotions in our locker room right now.”
Chloe Moore-McNeil couldn’t bear to sit in the room. The junior missed an open layup that would’ve given Indiana a one-point lead with less than 30 seconds to play. It’s a shot she could make in her sleep — and knowing the work ethic it takes to succeed at this level, she may actually have done that at some point.
And even 40 minutes after that shocking misfire, Moore-McNeil remained an emotional wreck. She stayed back by the showers, around the corner from the lockers, throughout the open locker room period.
But her distraught wails and agonizing screams served as the background music for any conversations had in the vicinity.
Some players, like Kiandra Browne and Arielle Wisne, sat by their lockers wearing pure disbelief on their faces. Browne’s season ended the way it began, watching from the bench while recovering from an injury; Wisne saw the court for just the 11th game this season, for all of 30 seconds. But the veterans felt the same pain as everyone else.
Some, like Sara Scalia, buried their head in their hands or a towel, attempting to contain the same emotions that filled the room like a gas leak.
This was Scalia’s first NCAA Tournament experience, after missing out in each of her three seasons at Minnesota. She came to IU to win, and did a whole lot of it this season.
But this, now, is her first taste of postseason agony. And that sting is unlike anything she’s felt before.
“Not as bad as this. This is probably as bad as I think I’ve felt,” Scalia said in the locker room. “We had high expectations for this team, and we’re all really talented. And we just fell short. It’s definitely not a good feeling.”
Grace Berger’s finality was twofold. Her heartbreak from falling short was the same as her teammates, but this also ended her stellar Hoosiers career.
Berger, like Moore-McNeil, had a chance to put her team in front in the closing stretch. She missed a pull-up jumper — her deadliest weapon, the type of shot she’s built her potential WNBA profile around — with 13 seconds left. It’s a look that IU head coach Teri Moren would want in that situation every single time. But it just didn’t fall.
That miss — and Moore-McNeil’s — weren’t the sole plays that swung this result. After Berger’s miss, and Miami adding two points at the free-throw line, Yarden Garzon hit a cold-blooded stepback 3-pointer with seven seconds left to tie the game at 68-68.
But Berger and Moore-McNeil, like most of this IU roster, are wired so competitively that they felt they’d let their team down in those moments.
And when the buzzer sounded and the Hurricanes stormed the court in celebration, it left an IU women’s basketball all-time great to grasp the end of her Hoosier career earlier than she’d hoped.
The TV cameras, lights, and microphones swarmed her space in the room right away, everyone wanting to know how she felt in that moment and what her years in Bloomington meant. It seemed clear that she was actively processing those thoughts as she spoke, while holding back tears.
“I knew it was eventually going to come to an end. It was inevitable,” Berger said in the locker room. “I loved being a Hoosier. Every single second of it. Coach Moren is someone that is going to impact me for more than just my five years here. I love this program, this university, my coaches, my teammates. It’s sad that it’s ending, but I’m just very grateful that it happened.”
Sydney Parrish sat on Berger’s right, and wept as the graduate student spoke.
Unlike Scalia, Parrish experienced team success at her previous school. She went to two straight NCAA Tournaments with Oregon. But the former Indiana Miss Basketball was struggling. She’d lost her love for the sport while playing out west.
And she rekindled that feeling this season with the Hoosiers.
Parrish knows this loss will hurt for a while, but that she and her teammates will move on eventually. But the realization that this was her last time playing with Berger and Alyssa Geary was harder to cope with.
“I just didn’t know that one player — one school —could have so much impact on me as a basketball player,” Parrish said through tears. “I was so lost before coming here. I didn’t like basketball. And I love it again, and it’s because of Indiana basketball. It’s because of these girls. I made a Sweet 16, and I wasn’t happy. I’d rather be here and lose in the second round and be happy. It just breaks my heart that it’s the last time playing with Grace and Alyssa.”
Losing is a part of sports, and only one team can truly end its season on a high note. Women’s basketball players exit this tournament teary-eyed every year. It’s hard to see seasons and careers end prematurely.
It’s a pain that doesn’t come with a playbook. These players will comprehend this on their own timelines. Some will wake up Tuesday morning with a clear head. Others may need days, weeks, or months.
Most of these Hoosiers will eventually start thinking about avenging this outcome in 2023-24. Berger will quickly turn her attention to preparing for the WNBA Draft in April.
But for Geary, this is truly a finality. She played one season at IU, after four at Providence. And she played only sparingly for the Hoosiers, and usually for short spells on the floor. Unlike Berger, this — in all likelihood — is the end of her competitive playing career.
And though Geary was emotional just like her teammates, she began to understand it by the end of the night.
Around 90 minutes after the final buzzer, Geary returned to the court — still in full uniform — with a team manager. By that point, the only others remaining were media and employees cleaning up the seating bowl.
Geary walked to the free-throw line, and the manager stood under the hoop. She took a few dribbles, bent her knees, and sunk the shot. The manager caught it, and the two walked back into the tunnel they emerged from with arms around each other. On her way out, Geary looked around the arena, taking it all in one last time.
The rest of these Hoosiers will all accept this finality at some point. They’ll have no choice but to accept it.
But it might take time.
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