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BLOOMINGTON — Grace Berger sits in front of her locker, staring at the floor as cameras position themselves around her. She was about 30 minutes removed from her final game at Assembly Hall, a second-round NCAA Tournament game against 9th-seeded Miami. This was meant to be a joyous occasion, a celebratory send-off for one of the best in program history and the next step in IU’s quest for a national championship.
But that’s not the case.
Berger is in tears, quietly being comforted by a staff member. Sydney Parrish cries in front of her locker to the right; Chloe Moore-McNeil can be heard sobbing in the shower. Teammates are scattered around the room, sitting in stunned silence following a heartbreaking 70-68 loss to the Hurricanes.
A season destined to end in Dallas — or, at worst, next weekend in South Carolina — was brought crashing down in Bloomington.
"I knew it was eventually going to come to an end. It was inevitable," Berger said. "I loved being a Hoosier, every single second of it. It's the best decision I've ever made. Coach Moren is someone who's going to impact me far more than just my five years here. I love this program, I love this university, I love my coaches, I love my teammates. It's sad that it's ending, but I'm very grateful that it happened."
That's Grace Berger.
Known for her stoic demeanor, Berger is the best teammate anyone could ever ask for, coach Teri Moren said, praising her coachability and competitive spirit. "We're not sitting here where we are today without Grace Berger. I'm so glad she chose us."
"Grace Berger, she's a beast on the court, but during practices and those little moments, she's super supportive," said Geary, a grad transfer from Providence. "Whenever I didn't get something right away, she was always there to pick me up, and help me out. She's such an amazing player, but it was so nice and comforting to have her pick you up in that way."
In basketball terms, Berger was an electrifying presence at the dawn of a golden era in Indiana women's basketball. Responsible for the program's first-ever triple-double her sophomore season, she entered Monday's contest with the second-most assists and ninth-most points in program history.
Miami coach Katie Meier compared her to Dwyane Wade prior to the game, then to Dirk Nowitzki afterwards. "She's really that good," Meier said.
With Berger's individual performances came wins (117, to be exact, plus appearances in the Elite 8 and Sweet 16), and with success came a rise in attendance. IU averaged 3,920 fans per game in Berger's freshman season. It averaged over 7,700 this year, with a record 17,222 in attendance for senior day vs. Purdue.
Monday's game was played in front of 14,480 fans, making it the second-largest crowd in program history.
This was the vision Moren pitched to Berger during the recruiting process, a chance to help build a powerhouse while representing a state whose motto is: "In 49 other states it's just basketball."
"I hope it's the norm and I think it will be," Berger said. "We have great fans and part of the reason I wanted to come here was to help build that fanbase to be what it is on the men's side. I want that to be part of my legacy, that they keep coming back and supporting this program because it's something super special."
— hank 🇰🇷 (@Brian_Haenchen) March 21, 2023
When being recruited to IU, Berger was pitched on the idea of competing in the Final Four. That concept seemed surreal, a pipe dream, at the time, she admits, but IU came close the past two seasons and was on the doorstep once again this year.
That's why Monday's outcome felt so unbelievably unfair.
Indiana dug itself a massive hole in the first half, then rallied within striking distance in the third quarter — a charge spearheaded by All-American forward Mackenzie Holmes, who'd missed the first round game against Tennessee Tech due to knee soreness — before engaging Miami in a heavyweight boxing match in the fourth quarter.
The visitors led by three with seven seconds remaining, when IU — which had erased a five-point deficit moments earlier — tied the score at 68 on a stepback 3-pointer from the top of the arc by freshman Yarden Garzon, with a behind-the-back assist from Berger.
"That shows what kind of player Grace is, 12 seconds left and she throws a behind-the-back pass to a freshman," Parrish said, smiling softly. "It also shows how special a player Yarden is, making big plays like that as a freshman."
It was a clutch shot, one Garzon had the confidence to deliver thanks in large part to Berger.
"I think all season she did a really good job believing, no matter what the situation or moment was. Even when we were down, she always believed in us," Garzon said of Berger, adding she's the best player she's ever played with (high-praise considering she's played with WNBA players).
Unfortunately, Miami had the last laugh.
Coming out of a timeout, the Hurricanes threw the ball to Destiny Harden in the lane. The forward stepped to her left, then pulled back and swung back to her right, jumping straight up from the middle of the lane. Harden lofted a shot over Berger's outstretched arm. The orange sphere rolled across the rim, bounced gently off the back of the basket and fell through.
On a spring from the subsequent inbounds, Chloe Moore-McNeil lost control of the ball, the buzzer sounded and the celebration was on for Miami.
Thirty minutes later, Parrish is taking her turn with reporters. Berger sits slightly angled away from her, a towel draped over her head.
— Jared Kelly (@Jared_Kelly7) March 21, 2023
Can you put into words what's going through your head, sitting next to her right now?
Parrish, a Hamilton Southeastern grad and the lone in-state product on IU's roster, is immediately overcome by emotion, struck by the finality of the loss, the journey that led her to transfer from Oregon to Indiana over the summer and the role Berger played in reigniting her love for the game.
She takes a couple seconds to collect herself, then tearfully crafts a thoughtful, poignant response.
"I didn't know one player could have so much impact, that one school could have so much impact on me as a basketball player," Parrish says. "I was so lost before coming here. I didn't like basketball. And I love it again. And it's because of Indiana basketball. It's because of these girls."
As Parrish pauses once more, Berger reaches over and pats her on the leg, silently offering her teammate support as she continues.
Parrish made it to a Sweet 16 with Oregon, but she wasn't happy. "I'd rather be here and lose in the second round, and be happy. I love it here, I love these girls, I love this staff."
"It breaks my heart that this is the last time I've played with Grace and Alyssa (Geary)," Parrish says. "I can't wait to see Grace play at the next level, because she's so good. Anyone who's her teammate in the future is going to be beyond lucky to have someone who's as great as a person and as a player as she is."
As the open locker room session neared its conclusion, giving those involved time to properly grieve and cherish their final moments together as teammates, Moren fielded one last question about her star player in the media workroom.
"She touches everybody in their own way because of who she is as a human being," Moren said. "She's one of the very best to ever put on a uniform and I can't wait to see what's next for her. … That's why they're so emotional about her, because she means so much to all of us."
Follow Brian Haenchen on Twitter at @Brian_Haenchen.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: IU women's basketball says goodbye to one its greats, Grace Berger