Photo credit IU Athletics

‘The glue to our team’: Mackenzie Holmes led the way for IU women’s basketball’s historic season, and will be back for more

Mackenzie Holmes posted one of the greatest Individual seasons in Indiana women’s basketball history this year.

Though IU ended its 2022-23 season in disappointment, falling short of a third consecutive Sweet 16 appearance, Holmes was the centerpiece of the best team in program history. The Hoosiers spent the entire season in the top 15 of the AP Poll, and all but two weeks in the top 10. They ascended to a program-best No. 2 ranking, and held that for five weeks.

This IU team had a lot of firepower, and plenty of veteran leaders, but Holmes led the way both on and off the court.

And in her fifth and final season in Bloomington next year, she could cement her status as one of the best players to ever wear an Indiana basketball uniform.

A historic season

Holmes became the first player in program history to be named an Associated Press first team All-American, as well as IU’s first-ever Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.

The senior set a new IU single-season record with 281 field goals made, and she shattered her own field goal percentage record at .680. Holmes scored 692 points (second in program history, sixth in the nation), averaged 22.3 points per game (third in program history, seventh in the country), and swatted 58 blocks (seventh in program history).

Holmes was already enjoying a standout IU career, but she reached a new level this year. Grace Berger pointed out that she started her junior year like this as well, but her midseason knee injury derailed that progress.

So Berger didn’t see anything different from Holmes this season than before, aside from getting healthy. But she said Holmes’ confidence helped her achieve such immense success this year.

“She steps out there every night and knows that she’s the best post player on the court, and could score against anyone,” Berger said. “Nobody can stop her except herself.”

Indiana’s roster changes this season greatly benefitted Holmes, with improved outside shooting. That created headaches for opponents trying to limit both Holmes and those 3-point looks. Defenses still typically threw double-teams — if not more — at the senior, but she also improved in battling those.

She got better at recognizing when double-teams were coming, and she improved her floor vision and passing to find open teammates outside. Holmes dished 38 assists this season, more than doubling her previous career high.

And Holmes, on so many occasions, just took over games. IU would repeatedly feed her the ball and she’d make quick work with it. At her best, the forward could score on anyone, through multiple defenders. She’d regularly have stretches where she scored on several consecutive possessions.

Teammates said that when Holmes got in that mode, it made everyone else’s lives a lot easier.

“I’ve never played with someone like Mackenzie before. Every time we get her the ball, I know it’s probably going in,” Sydney Parrish said. “It kind of takes a weight off our shoulders because we know she can go to work anytime she wants.”

Photo credit IU Athletics

“The glue”

Holmes’ on-court play wasn’t the only way she was responsible for Indiana’s big season.

IU was headed for roster turnover after 2021-22, when Ali Patberg, Nicole Cardaño-Hillary, and Aleksa Gulbe graduated. Berger and Holmes were the returning leaders, but it was clear that Indiana’s roster and leadership structure in the coming season would both look different.

Berger is quieter, usually leading by example. But Holmes was a real key to Indiana’s chemistry that developed so quickly. She made particular efforts during the offseason, and after the team reconvened in the fall, to bring the group together.

That started while IU actively pursued transfer portal targets. Holmes’ friendly, genuine personality drew people in.

“As soon as I came on campus for my visit, she was just great. You could tell she was just real,” Parrish said. “It really attracted me to the program, because of her.”

As Chloe Moore-McNeil described her, Holmes was the mother figure of the team. If a teammate needed help with something, she was always there.

Berger said Holmes was always a listening ear, whether it was a freshman or a graduate student on the other end. And their different styles provided a good balance to IU’s player leadership.

“She is the glue to our team,” Moore-McNeil said.

Holmes organized group activities, like going to the movies or church together, and that helped the newcomers feel included.

Lilly Meister recalled seeing a movie with Holmes, Arielle Wisne, and Lexus Bargesser and the group dressed up “like Adam Sandler.” They weren’t seeing a Sandler movie — they saw the latest Minions movie — but just wore long shorts and baggy T-shirts for fun.

“That was one of the first times I hung out with her, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s so weird. I love it,'” Meister said. “I was like, ‘Ugh, I belong here!'”

A role model

Meister saw Holmes as a role model even before she arrived in Bloomington.

Playing the same position lent itself to that sort of connection, but Holmes took extra steps. When Meister was in high school, Holmes gave her advice on working through a scoring drought, and she texted encouragement and support on her first day of practice.

“I don’t even know how she knew,” Meister said. “It was nice to know someone had my back from a different state.”

So Meister came to IU this year knowing exactly who to look up to. She watched Holmes play from afar and wondered if she could one day become that type of force.

Their relationship was already established when IU started practicing, but the freshman was still taken aback seeing Holmes go to work in person. She quickly realized she’d be learning from one of the best post players in the country.

Holmes took Meister under her wing. Their friendship grew as they spent more time together, talking about non-basketball topics and joking about things like both of them wearing high numbers. But Holmes took her role in guiding the freshman seriously.

“She has been probably one of the biggest role models of my life,” Meister said.

Holmes gave Meister tips in practices and during games, encouraged her if she missed a shot, and showed her what it takes to succeed at the college level. And Meister soaked it all up.

The freshman appeared in every game except one for IU this year, but averaged just 6.5 minutes per game. Holmes typically played most of the game, especially in Big Ten games, and Meister — and Alyssa Geary — spelled her for short stretches. Meister often held up well in those small doses, but hadn’t been tested with a bigger role.

But with Holmes battling knee soreness heading into the NCAA Tournament, Meister was called into action. She made her first career start in the first round against Tennessee Tech, and played well in 20 minutes on the court.

Holmes didn’t need to say much to Meister ahead of that game. She reminded the freshman of all the work she’d put in throughout the season, and expressed confidence in her. They continued talking during the game, discussing little things Meister could’ve done better.

Berger and Parrish attributed Meister’s readiness for that moment to Holmes’ mentorship.

“It’s obviously beneficial for Lilly — you can’t ask for a better role model than Mackenzie Holmes. She’s always talking to Lilly, giving her little tips and advice,” Berger said. “I think you can see it, in Lilly’s ability to step up and fill that starting role. I think a lot of that is a testament to Mack and the confidence that she’s put into her.”

An all-time IU great

With a healthy 2023-24 season, Holmes will continue to climb Indiana’s career leaderboards.

She finished this season with 1,897 points, which is fourth in IU history. Holmes is 467 points away from Tyra Buss in the top spot, and she’s cleared that number in her two healthy seasons as a starter. So barring injury or severe regression, she’s on pace to become Indiana’s all-time leading scorer.

Holmes also sits fourth in program history at 16.5 points per game. Buss tops that list at 17.5; Holmes would need to come close to replicating her scoring output from this season to reach that mark.

She’s second in IU history with 207 blocks, and is 62 away from tying Quacy Barnes at No. 1. So Holmes would have to swat a few additional shots next year to take that record.

Holmes would also set a program record for career field goal percentage with her current .635 mark, and she has a significant lead over second place. Additionally, she’ll top the program record list for field goals made next season, is likely to enter the top five in rebounding and free throws attempted, and could also get there for free throws made.

Holmes is already among the best players in program history, and she still has one more season in Bloomington. IU loses Berger and Geary next year, but returns most of its successful roster from this year. Indiana has three other starters back — Parrish, Moore-McNeil, and Yarden Garzon — in addition to Holmes. Sara Scalia, who started the first half of the season, seems likely to re-enter the lineup.

Meister will continue as Holmes’ understudy next season, but this year of experience will serve her well — and she’ll have another year to learn from the veteran. IU gets other depth back through Bargesser, Henna Sandvik, and others, and it adds two top-100 freshmen in Lenee Beaumont and Jules LaMendola. The Hoosiers also have two scholarship slots available, if they opt for further reinforcements in the transfer portal.

But Mackenzie Holmes will be Indiana’s unquestioned leader and stalwart in 2023-24. Both on and off the court, she’ll look to help the IU women’s basketball avenge this year’s disappointing finish and finally get to a Final Four.

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