BLOOMINGTON — The moment wasn’t extraordinary for Lilly Meister.
IU women’s basketball coaches hinted, in the days leading up to the NCAA Tournament opener against Tennessee Tech, that she may receive her first career start, with All-American Mackenzie Holmes limited. There wasn’t some big announcement of that news; no private meeting with IU head coach Teri Moren.
It hit Meister while the Hoosiers reviewed their defensive gameplan earlier on Sunday. Coaches causally mentioned who she’d be guarding, and she realized what that meant.
She’s worked all season, developing her game, for an opportunity like this. After regularly battling with Holmes in practice, she felt ready.
That is, until the starting lineup introductions.
“I was just kind of trying to stay calm, go through the pregame,” Meister said during Indiana’s postgame open locker room period. “I think I even tried to get up when they called (Grace) Berger’s name, and she’s like, ‘Wait!’ So I was definitely a little antsy.”
Meister set a new career-high with 20 minutes played on Saturday, as No. 1 seeded IU rolled to a 77-47 win over the 16th-seeded Golden Eagles in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. She scored seven points on 3-of-4 shooting, grabbed seven rebounds, and tied Berger with a team-high three blocks.
Around an hour before the game, IU announced Holmes would be limited because of left knee soreness. That first flared up during the Big Ten Tournament in Minneapolis, as she was notably limited during IU’s loss to Ohio State. It’s the same knee Holmes injured last season and had midseason surgery on.
Holmes initially stretched with the Hoosiers before the game Saturday, but eventually stood to the side as they went through layup lines and more rigorous warmups. She never entered the game.
After the game, Moren and Holmes both confirmed the senior practiced leading into this game, but was limited. They both also said that if the game was closer, she would’ve been available to check in. But once Indiana pulled away in the second quarter, it was unnecessary.
Moren is optimistic about Holmes’ chances of playing in Monday’s second-round game, but they won’t make that decision until Monday. During the open locker room session, Holmes said it will depend on how she feels on Monday.
She added that there wasn’t a specific play or moment during the Big Ten Tournament that caused this problem, but that it just flared up while playing.
“It’s just something that I know could get re-aggravated anytime when I’m playing. So it just happened,” Holmes said. “And luckily, we had these couple of weeks to rest and rehab. And in this game, there wasn’t a big necessity for me to play. So (I was) able to sit out.”
Meister said she wasn’t particularly nervous before her first start — at least not more than normal. And despite the lapse during the pregame introductions, she didn’t take long to settle in.
The freshman scored Indiana’s first points of the game just over a minute in, and drew a foul on the layup. She completed the three-point-play, and was off from there.
Meister was comfortable in the paint on both ends. The Golden Eagles even threw double-teams at her at times, particularly upon receiving post feeds. That, along with Berger’s dominance, helped open things up for IU’s offense. And the freshman was a consistent defensive presence, making use of her notable size advantage over Tennessee Tech players.
Teammates weren’t surprised that Meister handled the moment with poise.
“One of our coaches told her yesterday that she’s not a freshman anymore,” Berger said during the open locker room. “We’re further along in the season. They have plenty of experience at this point. She’s come in and battled against Mackenzie every day in practice. I think that prepares you as well as just about anything can. So we were all super confident in her that she’d be able to fill the hole that Mackenzie left nicely.”
Alyssa Geary helped inside as well, tying her season high with 17 minutes. She scored three points and grabbed three rebounds.
Moren made sure both Geary and Meister knew they didn’t need to turn into Holmes — it’s not easy to replicate a first team All-American. IU just needed their best efforts within their own skill sets.
And even if Holmes is able to return in her usual capacity, this game could benefit Meister and Geary moving forward in March Madness.
“I thought both of them did a tremendous job. We didn’t need either one of them to do or be anything other than who they are,” Moren said. “I’m not surprised by what they were able to do and provide and give us. It’s March. They’ve got plenty of reps. They showed up today and we’re going to continue to need them. Mack is not going to be able to play 40 minutes. She hasn’t been able to do that all year. The experience both of them got today was really good, I thought.”