When Mackenzie Holmes suited up for her first game in an Indiana uniform, she looked unrecognizable compared to the career that would follow.
The forward joined the Hoosiers in 2019, as they looked to build on their first NCAA Tournament win in four years. At 6-foot-3, Holmes was taller than most of her competition growing up, and developed into a five-star recruit at Gorham (Maine) High School. She had immense potential entering college.
But her bright future wasn’t always clearly evident. Holmes’ first IU appearance came in an exhibition game against McKendree (Ill.) University in early November. And even before taking the court, then-teammate Ali Patberg noticed something off with the freshman. She said Holmes looked like she’d barely slept the night before.
“She came in the locker room the morning of, and she was so nervous,” said Patberg, who’s now an assistant coach at IU. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen somebody be so nervous before a game — an exhibition game.”
The game didn’t count in the standings, and the statistics didn’t count towards season-long totals. But Holmes struggled that day. Her first layup attempt barely hit the backboard and didn’t touch the rim — it was such a wild shot, it wasn’t counted as a field-goal attempt in the box score.
That was the only time her father, Lenny, ever wondered about her abilities. Her older brother, Cam, who was a practice player for the team from 2019 through 2022, remembers it like it was yesterday.
“She was very wide-eyed in her first couple games,” Cam said. “The very first game she played, she was just absolutely brutal.”
Holmes only improved from there, and moments like that became very rare throughout her IU career. She’s achieved as much team and individual success over the last four years as any player to come through the program. And with one more season at Indiana, her COVID year, Holmes could seal her legacy as one of the most significant figures to ever play for the Hoosiers.
Holmes arrived in Bloomington in 2019 a timid person and an undeveloped player. She immediately played a tangible role for the Hoosiers as one of the team’s top bench options, but still needed time to find her footing in the college game.
She’d held her own against top talent as a high schooler playing AAU, but this was another level. Holmes had to refine her skill set, but also improve her confidence that took a hit after the rough debut. And it took time to rebuild it.
Through her tireless work with IU’s coaching staff — particularly associate head coach Rhet Wierzba, who works with IU’s forwards — that switch started to flip for Holmes around her freshman winter break. And the difference was noticeable.
“(She was) shooting it knowing it would go in rather than hoping it would go in, demanding the ball more and not just standing there with a hand up,” Cam said. “I just saw her play with a lot of the confidence she had in high school and AAU where she knew she belonged and could play at this level, versus the first month or two of the season where she was still trying to figure out if she belonged there or not.”
Holmes went on to average 10.8 points and 5.2 rebounds per game, and was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team. After Brenna Wise graduated that year, Holmes entered the starting lineup as a sophomore.
And that’s when she took off. Holmes leapt to 17.8 points and 7.6 rebounds per game in 2020-21, and swatted 80 blocks — the second-most by a Hoosier in a single season. She was a critical piece on Indiana’s first-ever Elite Eight team.
Holmes carried momentum from that sophomore campaign into her junior year in 2021-22. But she underwent knee surgery in January, which cost her eight games, and she couldn’t fully recover upon returning before the season ended. But she still earned an All-Big Ten second team nod.
Some of Holmes’ defining traits, both on and off the court, are her humility and level-headedness. She doesn’t ride too high after her best moments, and she doesn’t hang her head too low after her worst. So the injury-riddled second half of her junior season didn’t impact her going into her senior year — she wouldn’t let it.
And Holmes, last year, turned in one of the best individual seasons in IU women’s basketball history. She took over games and dominated so regularly that it almost became an expectation.
“She’s special,” Patberg said. “Sometimes you’re just like, ‘How did she do that?’”
At 22.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.9 blocks, and 1.2 assists per game, while shooting 68 percent from the field and playing strong post defense, Holmes was one of the best players in the country last year.
IU’s roster changes, with improved 3-point shooting, greatly benefitted Holmes inside. But her standout season — and career — is a testament to her self-confidence that nobody can stop her but herself, and the work she’s done to justify that feeling.
“I don’t know, in her wildest dreams, if she ever thought she could become the All-American she’s become here,” IU head coach Teri Moren said. “You only do that one way, and that’s to get in here and do your work every single day. Days off, there’s no such thing for Mackenzie. She should be really proud of herself. I know I’m extremely proud of her, not for the player she’s become, (but) for the person she’s become and how she’s gone about her work.”
Holmes, like her teammates, entered this offseason on a sour note after Indiana’s upset loss to Miami in the NCAA Tournament second round. That pain has subsided, but hasn’t disappeared.
But Holmes had additional frustration coming out of last year. It was the second straight season she finished at less than 100 percent because of knee problems. She was healthy throughout the regular season, but her knee flared up again during the Big Ten Tournament. She missed IU’s first-round NCAA Tournament game against Tennessee Tech and returned to face Miami, but she wasn’t at full capacity that night, despite her strong numbers.
Injuries and rehab are one of the hardest things athletes have to endure, but it was doubly agonizing for Holmes to end two years in a row dealing with the same issue.
“It sucks. I’m going to be blunt. It sucks,” Holmes said. “Being injured is horrible. It’s not fun. Especially when you’re in the middle of the season, trying to deal with that is horrible. My goal is to always stay healthy, so I’m doing everything I can with my athletic trainers, extra work to make sure I stay healthy.”
Holmes had to rest her knee this offseason, but wasn’t always keen on doing so. She’s used to putting in so many extra hours that Wierzba would jokingly tell her mother, Denise, ‘I’ve got to tell her to go home. I have a family at home.’ It’s not easy to keep someone like that away from the court or limit how much she’s doing on it.
But keeping Holmes fresher this year was as much a focus for IU’s coaching staff this offseason as it was for Holmes herself. It’s one of the reasons the Hoosiers added Sharnecce Currie-Jelks from the transfer portal — they wanted another post player, along with Lilly Meister, who could spell Holmes this season, both in practices and in games. That already began over the summer, as Holmes didn’t play in either of IU’s two exhibition games in Greece.
And as Moren tried to limit Holmes’ practice reps, she’d resist, in good nature.
“I don’t really like when she does that. So sometimes I just throw myself back in,” Holmes said. “They’re like, ‘Get off!’ And I’m like, “OK.’ (And then I) go right back in.”
Holmes is healthy entering this year. She could’ve played in Greece, but the team exercised extreme caution and held her out.
Having Holmes at or near 100 percent could have made the difference in the Miami game, and IU is doing what it can to get that version of Holmes in her final March run.
Raising the bar
The numbers speak for themselves. Holmes, statistically, would already go down as one of the top players in program history even if she didn’t play another minute.
She’ll most likely pass Grace Berger as the program’s all-time winningest player this season. Holmes needs 19 wins to set that mark, and Indiana hasn’t finished shy of that since Moren’s first season in 2014-15.
Holmes is second in IU history with 208 blocks, with an outside chance at passing Quacy Barnes for that record (she’d need 62). She could also set a program record for career field goal percentage (she’s currently in first at .635), and will likely enter the top five in rebounds (currently eighth with 774, and needs 150 to tie for fifth).
Holmes also notably enters her last season in fourth on IU’s all-time scoring list, with 1,897 points — 467 shy of Tyra Buss. So if Holmes stays healthy this year and avoids drastic regression, she’ll pass Buss and top the list. If she scored around 20 points per game this year, she’d set the record in early February.
That scoring achievement isn’t something Holmes is focusing on entering the season. She’s more concerned about winning games and reaching a Final Four. But becoming IU’s all-time leading scorer would be significant to her.
“It would be a great blessing,” Holmes said. “Tyra Buss was an incredible player here, going down in history for IU women’s basketball. So to have my name even close to her’s and those other names up there means a lot to me.”
Holmes is in the group of players with Patberg, Berger, and others who helped raise what’s possible for Indiana women’s basketball to accomplish. But Holmes, as much as those others — in some ways, even more — has elevated what’s possible to accomplish in an Indiana uniform.
Buss achieved remarkable individual success while helping to build the foundation for the program IU has become. Berger, twice, was an Associated Press All-American honorable mention, and became Indiana’s highest WNBA Draft pick.
But Holmes was IU’s first-ever AP All-American in 2021, an honorable mention, and then became IU’s first-ever first-team selection last year. She also became the program’s first Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year recipient, and she’s just the third IU player to take home any individual conference award. And she could set the program’s scoring record — and enter the top 10 on the Big Ten’s scoring list — while playing on extremely talented winning teams that spread the ball around heavily.
It’s the type of success once thought impossible for an IU women’s basketball player to reach.
“You don’t have to be in a UConn uniform or a Tennessee uniform to reach those goals and expectations,” Denise said. “Like Teri keeps saying, there’s no special sauce. And there isn’t. But there aren’t a lot of Mackenzies, either.”
Setting the standard
But Holmes’ IU legacy goes beyond the statistics and the accolades.
Everyone around her cites her dogged work ethic, the type Moren has built her program around. Holmes has obvious natural ability, but she wasn’t a prodigy who found success overnight. She’s put in the extra work it takes to reach the level of excellence she’s attained, and she’s avoided complacency since arriving there.
“She’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever played with and been around,” said IU guard Sydney Parrish. “She’s always in the gym, whether that’s extra conditioning, extra lifting, extra workouts, making sure her body is healthy, being in the training room.”
Holmes will also go down among the strongest leaders Indiana’s ever had. She had a good example to look up to earlier in her career in Patberg, among others, and she’s suitably carried the torch. IU had some uncertainties going into last year, after losing an important senior class and adding a lot of new faces. And Holmes’ leadership was a big reason why the Hoosiers jelled so quickly and enjoyed a historic season — she was the glue of that team.
She’ll be the unquestioned primary leader of this year’s squad as well.
That leadership extends beyond the locker room. Holmes — like many on the team — regularly stays on the court after games to meet fans, sign autographs, and take photos. She’s built a bond with IU fans over the years and reciprocates the love they’ve shown her. After Indiana beat Princeton at home to reach the Sweet 16 in 2022, Holmes bolted up the bleachers to celebrate with the student section. Her teammates followed, creating a memorable celebration scene.
Holmes also actively participates in IU’s recruiting efforts. She helped convince Parrish, Sara Scalia, and Alyssa Geary to all transfer to Indiana in spring 2022. Scalia spent two hours talking basketball with Holmes on the Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall court during her visit, and she committed the next day.
“That was a good experience with her. She opened up my eyes to what Indiana basketball was about,” Scalia said. “That was a big thing that helped me.”
But it’s not only transfer portal recruiting. Holmes, even as a senior, talks with high school prospects visiting campus to try and keep the program strong into the future. Moren said Holmes always wanted to be involved in the recruiting process.
“This is her last year — she’s going on recruiting visits, talking to recruits that’ll be playing here next year, two years, three years down the road, and trying to spell out how important basketball is to the state of Indiana,” Cam said. “Clearly, at this point in her career, the way those recruits will perform have absolutely no effect on her personal legacy. But they have everything to do with the legacy of Indiana women’s basketball. And I believe she cares so much about that, a lot more than most would.”
“What a Hoosier should be”
Holmes committed to Indiana in March 2018, part of a four-player recruiting class of 2019. She was one of two five-stars in the class, and entered with less fanfare than 2019 Indiana Miss Basketball Jorie Allen. Allen transferred to DePaul after their freshman season, and 2019 Indiana All-Star Hannah Noveroske transferred to Toledo one year later. That left Holmes and Arielle Wisne as the remaining members of the class. Wisne has been faithful and dedicated to the program, but has played sparingly during her IU career.
So it’s Holmes who’s really carried that recruiting class.
“I think she’s just a good example of what Indiana wants, and most programs want,” Denise said. “Someone loyal and willing to put in the time that is needed to be so successful.”
Holmes has been as loyal as a player can be to their program throughout her career. As her profile grew and as Indiana underwent major roster turnover, she easily could have entered the transfer portal — like so many other college athletes have over the last several years — and landed at a more traditional women’s basketball power, perhaps closer to home in Maine.
But that thought never entered her mind. She wouldn’t play for anyone other than IU, and she made that clear after her junior year.
“I’m going to wear Indiana on my chest until they don’t let me wear Indiana on my chest anymore,” Holmes said after IU’s loss to UConn in the 2022 Sweet 16. “I’m going to wear that jersey as long as I possibly can.”
Holmes’ upcoming final season in Bloomington will ultimately shape her legacy in some ways. She already sits comfortably among the best and most important players in program history. But if she can lead the Hoosiers to their first-ever Final Four or national title, her legend would grow even larger.
Cam felt it’s important to his sister to write her own chapter in the story of IU women’s basketball, and to have the happy ending she’s worked hard for.
But for many, Mackenzie Holmes’ Hoosier legacy will be defined by more than the points she’s scored and the games she’s won.
“A lot of people see how talented she is on the floor, but you don’t see the type of person she is, the type of teammate she is, the student she is, just how awesome she is with fans, because she truly loves this place. She loves this team, she loves this program,” Patberg said. “She’s what a Hoosier should be.”
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