BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP)Indiana guard Grace Berger came back for her fifth season to win a Big Ten championship.
Her gritty play Thursday night put the Hoosiers on the precipice.
She finished with a season-high 26 points, nine rebounds and six assists, Mackenzie Holmes added 24 points and the duo spurred a late charge to send No. 2 Indiana past Iowa 87-78.
”I just really wanted to win,” Berger said. ”I remember losing to them three times last year and in the Big Ten (Tournament) championship game, so any time you play a team like that, it means a little more.”
Not surprisingly, the rematch and the first top-five matchup in Big Ten play in nearly 30 years lived up to the billing.
But after playing to a draw through each of the first two quarters, Berger asserted herself in the second half by making one big play after another and routinely bringing the record Assembly Hall crowd to its feet.
Indiana (23-1, 12-1) has broken the attendance mark three times since January, this time with 13,046 inside the historic building as it won its 11th straight to take a 1 1/2-game lead in its quest for a second regular-season conference crown. Indiana’s only other title came in 1982-83, the Big Ten’s inaugural season of sponsoring women’s basketball.
Berger was 10 of 20 from the field and teamed up with Holmes to score 20 of Indiana’s 23 third-quarter points and nearly half of the points in the decisive 17-7 fourth-quarter run.
”I loved Grace’s mindset tonight,” coach Teri Moren said. ”You could tell she was not going to be denied. I’ve seen that look a lot, and I knew she wanted to lead us throughout the 40 minutes.”
Caitlin Clark did everything she could to give Iowa (19-5, 11-2) a shot. Despite going 12 of 28 from the field, 3 of 11 on 3-pointers and logging eight turnovers, Clark still finished with 35 points, 10 assists and four rebounds.
But Berger and Holmes made sure Clark couldn’t keep Iowa’s eight-game winning streak intact. Iowa center Monika Czinano finished with six points and fouled out in the fourth quarter.
”Mackenzie Holmes did an excellent job in the post,” coach Lisa Bluder said. ”I thought Grace Berger was outstanding. She played really, really well. So good game by Indiana and we’ll bounce back.”
Berger’s midrange jumper to close the third quarter finally gave Indiana a 62-57 lead, matching its biggest of the night. Then the Berger-Holmes combination spurred the big fourth-quarter run that made it 79-69 with 3:24 to play and Iowa never got within a possession again.
Iowa went 12 of 23 at free-throw line and Indiana finished 22 of 34 on the night.
Iowa: Clark is one of the frontrunners for national player of the year, and there’s little doubt the Hawkeyes are among the nation’s top teams. But in this raucous environment, the Hawkeyes lost their poise. They turned the ball over 18 times, went 6 of 23 on 3-pointers and it could cost last year’s regular-season co-champs a shot at a second straight title.
Indiana: The Hoosiers answered any lingering doubters with a gutsy performance. They struggled, at times, offensively, and played through some serious foul trouble before improving to 7-0 this season against ranked teams. They’ve also won 16 straight at home.
Indiana did what it needed to retain the highest ranking in school history. With no game until Monday, the showdown between the nation’s only remaining unbeaten teams in No. 1 South Carolina and No. 3 LSU on Sunday could determine if Indiana gets another week at No. 2.
Iowa, meanwhile, shouldn’t slide much – if at all – after going toe-to-toe for 40 minutes at Indiana.
SHE SAID IT
”I thought the crowd was good,” Clark said when asked about the tension inside the arena. ”I don’t think we helped ourselves by starting the game with three turnovers in a row. I think there was a lot of self-inflicted problems by us. But you’re a competitor and those are the moments you live for.”
Iowa: Hosts Rutgers on Sunday.
Indiana: Visits No. 13 Ohio State on Monday.
AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25