Photo credit - IU Athletics

Even without Grace Berger, IU looks like a Final Four-caliber team

Indiana women’s basketball lost one of its best players less than a week before taking the court against North Carolina.

But if you didn’t know that going into the game, you wouldn’t be able to tell the Hoosiers lost a significant piece like Grace Berger. They just looked comfortable.

That’s the best way to describe No. 5 IU’s overwhelming performance against the sixth-ranked Tar Heels. Everything just came so easily for the Hoosiers. No matter what UNC threw at Indiana defensively, IU’s players made it look simple.

IU even looked comfortable on the sideline. That’ll happen when your head coach is wearing a sweatshirt.

And let’s be clear: North Carolina is no slouch. The Tar Heels were coming off back to back wins over ranked teams, No. 19 Oregon and No. 8 Iowa State. UNC returned basically everyone from its Sweet 16 team last year.

And Indiana ran that team out of Bloomington.

Berger is out indefinitely, and if she’s able to come back this season, IU will welcome her with open arms. But IU looks like a special team even without her.

The Hoosiers shied away from saying this win made a statement after the game. So I’ll say it for them: the Indiana women’s basketball team that played at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall on Thursday is a Final Four-caliber team.

A serious 3-point threat

Given how both the men’s and women’s teams have approached outside shooting over the last several years, it’s stunning to use that phrase to describe an IU basketball team. But it’s the truth.

So far this season, IU is tied for 38th in the country with 8.5 made 3-pointers per game. Teams they’re tied with include Iowa, Stanford, and Oregon. The Hoosiers are also tied for 38th with their 36.36 shooting percentage on threes.

IU’s offseason additions made clear that this team would be improved from beyond the arc. Senior Sara Scalia, in particular, brings a lot of firepower from outside, as she was one of the Big Ten’s top 3-point shooters last year.

Indiana wasn’t a low-percentage 3-point shooting team last year. The Hoosiers were just low-volume. They didn’t have someone like Scalia, whose game is built around the 3-pointer. She’s averaging 6.75 attempts per game and shooting 37 percent from deep. The UNC game was her best 3-point performance, going 4 for 7.

And perhaps the bigger reason for IU’s drastic evolution into a 3-point threat is freshman Yarden Garzon. She’s been impressive in basically every facet of the game so far, but her 3-point shooting has been incredible.

Garzon is shooting 54.05 percent from beyond the arc, which is second in the Big Ten and tied for 10th in the country. Her exceptional shooting is setting up so much else for her and her teammates, as opponents continue to see her play and try to figure out how to stop her.

Junior Oregon transfer Sydney Parrish has also provided a boost on outside shooting — she also went 4 for 7 against the Tar Heels. And junior Chloe Moore-McNeil can knock them down as well.

That outside shooting hasn’t come at the expense of what Indiana was already doing well. When Berger was healthy, she was still getting her usual steady helping of mid-range shots. Mackenzie Holmes has returned to her top-notch form from before her January knee injury.

Adding dangerous 3-point shooting to a team that already had a typically efficient offense has turned Indiana into a juggernaut. IU is seventh in the country and second in the Big Ten with 88.5 points per game.

It’s hard to know how sustainable this level of production could be, but early returns are as positive as you could hope for.

The Hebrew hooper

From the beginning of the season, Garzon has looked like a star.

The aforementioned 3-point shooting has been tremendous, but the Israeli does just about everything well. She can score out of the post. She can drive to the hoop. She’s a terrific passer. She spaces the floor well and can run the point. She’s a good rebounder. Her defense is improving.

If there’s one singular player to make you believe Indiana can maintain this high level of play with Berger out, it’s Garzon.

The entire rotation will help fill Berger’s void, but no one player can account for as much of that single-handedly as Garzon. She was certainly not the biggest standout against UNC, but she managed to quietly come close to a triple-double: nine points, seven rebounds, seven assists.

IU’s staff has quickly realized what Garzon bring to the offense.

“Inside of every practice, inside of every game, you can have some fun and run some cool actions for her — especially when you have a player like Mack that’s so good around the rim,” head coach Teri Moren said. “We feel like, as a staff, we can put the ball in Yarden’s hand. She very rarely makes the wrong decision. That’s nothing that we’ve taught. She is a very good basketball player that just happens to be a freshman.”

Garzon came in more polished than typical freshmen, having played against WNBA-caliber competition in Israel. She’s acclimated to the college game very quickly. And through the first month of the season, she looks like the favorite for Big Ten freshman of the year.

Holmes as dominant as ever

IU sorely missed Mackenzie Holmes in the stretch run last year.

She was on the court in late February and March, but she was not her typical self. She returned from her knee injury when IU had a very condensed schedule, so she didn’t have the practice time to rebuild her conditioning. Holmes was able to play, but she wasn’t 100 percent.

She’s back to full strength now, and she’s found her pre-injury form. Holmes scored a team-high 25 points against UNC, her fourth straight 20-point game. She shoots a staggering 73.4 percent from the field, which is second in the country (by only 0.07 percent). She’s second in the Big Ten and tied for 16th in the country with 20.6 points per game.

The Tar Heels keyed in on Holmes defensively, often double-teaming her, and clearly trying to deny entry passes to her. When she had the ball, UNC played particularly physical defense. But it didn’t matter. Holmes just powered through it.

“What I was hoping we would do is make touches more difficult (for Holmes). I don’t think we did that. I don’t think we made them difficult at all,” UNC head coach Courtney Banghart said. “Then we played behind, and we just sort of played 1-v-1 on defense. And we don’t have the strength and length to handle (that). She’s a senior, she’s had a lot of experience in this league for a long time. They’ve got one of the better centers in the game on their team.”

Holmes is capable of taking over a game when her team can’t get rolling elsewhere. She plays physically, has great touch around the rim, is an alert passer inside, and can simply wear down opponents. And she’s a strong defender and rim protector.

Even with Berger out, the Hoosiers have one of the best players in the sport on their side. Players like that are crucial for making deep NCAA Tournament runs.

Because of Holmes, Garzon, and so many other reasons, this IU team looks capable of doing that once again.

The Daily Hoosier –“Where Indiana fans assemble when they’re not at Assembly”