Grace Berger looked like Grace Berger again vs. Rutgers, and that makes IU women even scarier.
BLOOMINGTON — Not even two full minutes into the third quarter of Sunday’s game, IU's lead over Rutgers was cut down to just five.
This day — not far removed from Thursday, where IU beat No. 5 Ohio State in yet another statement win — felt like it could become a trap game for the sixth-ranked Hoosiers. IU had just swept a brutal three-game stretch and was coming off the high of Thursday. A slow start to Sunday’s game, where Indiana was uncharacteristically out-toughed, magnified those concerns.
IU (20-1, 10-1) raged back in the second quarter, taking control of the game. But then early in the third, Rutgers knocked on the door again. A Rutgers 3 cut its deficit to just five.
But Grace Berger was determined to keep the lead. She responded by hitting a 3 of her own. Shortly after, she hit a two. A few possessions later, she assisted on a basket that put IU up by 12. IU didn’t fully shut the door until the fourth quarter, but that stretch, spearheaded by Berger, helped the Hoosiers gain important separation on the way to a 91-68 victory at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.
This performance was important because Grace Berger looked like Grace Berger again. She has been effective since returning from her injury, but Sunday was an emphatic statement of sorts. She finished the game with a season-high 21 points on 9-of-11 from the field, including 3-of-3 from deep, along with seven assists.
Before being derailed by injury, this was the type of performance Berger displayed last season, and the season before that and the season before that.
Sunday was a reminder of just how good she can be.
“I think with every practice, I think with every game, you see Grace looking more like the Grace Berger we’ve been accustomed to seeing,” IU coach Teri Moren said. “And today was just another one of those days where her timing, her stamina, her moxie that she’s played with, really showed up in a big kind of way. And if anybody deserves it, it’s Grace Berger because of the amount of time that she’s spent just working on her game.”
It has been a tumultuous few months for Berger. Expectations this season were for Berger to be a star on a team with lofty ambitions. But the path changed when she suffered a knee injury in late November. There were about 48 hours, Moren said, where there was worry about the severity. The ultimate word, though, was good news — it didn’t require surgery.
“It’s the first time I’ve missed a lot of games in my career, even before college,” Berger said. “But I think I realized that a) I would be back and b) we still have goals as a team that we want to accomplish, whether I’m on the court or not, so we still want to win a Big Ten championship, we still want to get that No.1 seed in the NCAA tournament. And so I was just trying to focus on ways I could help my team win from the sideline, instead of just feeling sorry for myself.”
IU dealt with the obstacles that came with Berger’s absence remarkably well. They continued to win, beating the doors off of North Carolina. In the time Berger was out, the Hoosiers lost just one game. Meanwhile, Berger was doing what she could to rehab, including going on the bike.
“She worked out every single day as much as she could,” said teammate Sydney Parrish. “If she couldn’t move her leg, she would be doing something with her arms. She’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever met. And was just working day in and day out every single day to get back on the court, whether that’s strengthening her knee or working on her condition or just eating right, taking the protein drinks that she’s needed to.”
Berger is known for being on the quieter side. But in the time she was out, Moren saw her develop more vocally.
“I thought she was terrific on the bench — provided a lot of insight for her teammates in timeouts and so forth,” Moren said. “Sometimes in adversity you not only learn a lot about yourself, but you grow in those moments. And we’ve seen another opportunity of how Grace has grown here as of late.”
Berger finally made her return to game action in early January. In her first game back, she scored 16 points and had five assists. It was a performance Moren said, “If you would’ve told me she had been out for six weeks, I would’ve said you’re crazy because she just looked so comfortable.”
Berger has scored in double-figures in every game since her return. She has recorded at least five assists in six of the past seven games, as well. The Grace Berger effect is real. On Sunday, it was strikingly evident, especially during that IU run in the third quarter.
There are still some hiccups, though. Berger had four turnovers Sunday. Not long ago, she had six against Illinois. Postgame, Berger admitted, “I think there’s sometimes I’m not as bouncy as I used to be.”
The return of Berger has given an already elite team another weapon. Mackenzie Holmes has been playing at an All-American level. Yarden Garzon has become a star as a freshman. Chloe Moore-McNeil and Sydney Parrish act as part of the glue holding the team together.
Berger, perhaps, is the final piece necessary for IU to achieve its goals this season. It started with getting back on the court. Now it is becoming her dominant self again.
“Today was, I thought, Grace Berger Day," Moren said.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: IU women's basketball: Grace Berger pushes Hoosiers past Rutgers