From the moment Mackenzie Holmes entered the Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall media room Thursday night, it just felt different.
The graduate student has made that walk from the locker room to the podium countless times over the last five years. She shows as much emotion as anyone on the court, and it occasionally creeps into her press conferences, but she’s typically measured and humble when she steps into the room and takes questions.
Holmes still maintained those qualities Thursday. But her body language at the podium after IU’s thrilling 94-91 win over Michigan State exuded more pride than normal. She wore the type of grin that’s hard to wipe off.
And given the serious threat the Hoosiers faced in this game, and the number of big moments they needed to overcome that, it was hard to blame her.
“I’m just proud, I think that’s the first word that comes to my head. I’m proud of our fight,” Holmes said after the game. “We knew that they were going to come in here and get there shots up, and they were just hitting shot after shot, and we knew we just had to stay the course, stick with our game plan, adjust, and I think we did all those things down the stretch.”
It’s tough to set aside the individual accomplishments from this game, because there were plenty worth featuring. Chloe Moore-McNeil’s two big free throws to put the game away with six seconds left secured the fourth triple-double in program history — she joins Grace Berger as the only players to do it. The senior racked up a career-high 11 assists along the way. Holmes dominated the second half, with 18 points, to give her 28 on the night — which puts her 17 away from setting the program scoring record. She also passed Berger to become IU’s all-time winningest player Thursday.
But in every sense of nearly any sports cliché, this was as big of a complete team win as Indiana could draw up.
IU spent most of the game playing from behind. Michigan State is the type of team that’s given the Hoosiers trouble the last several years — a really athletic group that can speed them up on both ends, and can knock down enough outside shots to spread them out defensively and cause breakdowns. And the Spartans controlled the pace for the entire game — IU head coach Teri Moren didn’t think her team got it under control the entire game. Indiana’s offense had to improve in the halfcourt to keep pace with the Spartans.
And that’s exactly what happened. The Hoosiers came up with clutch play after clutch play down the stretch, trading blows with Michigan State until the very end of the game.
“You could probably point to a lot of those moments where it’s like, ‘That was a big shot.’ But you have to have the kids that are super, uber confident that they can knock those shots down. Because in a moment like that where it is a gut check time, you’ve got to have some cojones,” Moren said. “You’ve got to be able to step up and say, ‘I’m going to hit this shot for my team tonight.’ And I thought there were a lot of moments — big moments, big shots — where they had some big cojones.”
Nearly everyone who played for IU on Thursday came up with a big moment. It wasn’t just Holmes and Moore-McNeil. Lexus Bargesser turned in an important 10 points in the first half on some aggressive plays. Sara Scalia hit the 3-pointer to put IU back in front in the fourth quarter for the first time since the opening period, and she made numerous other big plays. Yarden Garzon tapped into her clutch genes with several huge shots in the fourth quarter.
Even reserves made things happen. Henna Sandvik banked in a 3-pointer — her first since the season-opener in November — late in the third quarter to cut the deficit to three points. Jules LaMendola took a charge in the middle of an IU run in the second quarter.
Michigan State led by 10 points at halftime. The Spartans weren’t simply outrunning Indiana for most of the game — they hit the types of difficult shots that make one think that fate was on their side. And they did that repeatedly, over several stretches of the game.
The Hoosiers have been tested throughout the season, but outside of their three losses, they’d never faced this much jeopardy. Assembly Hall got tense during the third quarter, when MSU staved off an IU run and got its lead back to double-digits. The Hoosiers are a veteran, battle-tested team, but they were up against so much on Thursday.
Winning a game like this, against an opponent like that, could do wonders for Indiana going into the last stretch of the regular season and then the postseason.
“It says a lot. I think it speaks to their maturity. I think it speaks to how connected they are, how much they rely on one another, both offensively and defensively. It speaks to, I think they’re a smart team. I think they understand where the ball needs to go. But also, it speaks to the confidence that they have in themselves,” Moren said. “It’s nights like tonight that are fun for all of us, because it was a great game, we came out on top. But I do think it will serve us well.”