Sports

Berger helps propel Indiana women’s basketball into a national power

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Years ago, an 8-year-old girl started dribbling a basketball and never stopped.

She dribbled more than you, me, and most professionals around the globe.

She dribbled after school. In the winter. On vacation. And it was never just with one basketball.

If you play on an organized basketball team as a kid and have a halfway decent coach, you are guaranteed to hear it: “Practice your dribbling drills at home.”

Inevitably, life as a kid gets in the way. We don’t yet comprehend the ten-thousand-hour rule of truly mastering something. There are televisions to watch, friends to play with, and any interesting subject in the world is just one touch away.

Steve Jobs didn’t know this, but he tried to put dribble drills out of business. In most cases, he succeeded.

In the case of Grace Berger?

Elon Musk could have dropped off a personal SpaceX flying machine in Berger’s driveway, and she still would have said, “Not until these drills are done, sir.”

“She would spend an hour-and-a-half every day doing two-ball drills starting as an 8-year-old until she was 18,” Berger’s father, Todd Berger, said. “I don’t want to take any of the credit here; she did this on her own.”

Today, Berger is an All-Big Ten guard, helping lead Indiana University women’s basketball to its finest era in program history.

Grace Berger driving to the hoop as a kid. (Courtesy: Berger Family)

History is the key here. As IU Women’s Basketball Head Coach Teri Moren admits, until recently, the basketball glory days in Bloomington are essentially exclusive to the men’s side.

The IU women were never deemed ‘great,’ but that has changed. 

Look at the scene last March inside the Hoosiers’ locker room following their NCAA Tournament Elite 8 upset over No. 1 seed North Carolina State.

See the ice-cold water flying through those PowerAde water bottles and into midair? 

This is the moment that kept Grace Berger dribbling all these years ago. She was going to be an Indiana Hoosier. And there were not going to be any shortcuts. 

Chris Paul saves the day

Todd Berger played all the sports back in his day, but basketball was his game. 

As a former collegiate player for the Transylvania University Pioneers in Lexington, Ky., Todd was going to have a basketball goal at the Berger house.

There it is, a new 7-foot hoop ready to go outside. Perfect. 

And then came the surprise. You see, this hoop was technically for his older son to pick up an interest in the game. But, once it went up, his younger daughter took over. Literally.

“I remember her first game, we told people she was in first grade so she could be on the team,” Todd Berger said. “She is playing with kids two or three years older and scores over 20 points. She got every rebound and you could tell she almost felt bad about it.” 

It was about this time that Todd and Mary Berger remember the dribbling drills starting. 

They make it clear that this wasn’t their idea, nor was it some sort of enforced rule, like doing homework. 

With guidance from coaches on YouTube, Grace Berger watched, learned, and mastered just about every dribbling drill using two basketballs that existed.

“I would practice the garage, in the basement, in the winter in our basement furnace room, wherever I could get it done,” Grace Berger said. “I had my dad rebound for me in 20-degree weather. I just knew that I wanted to be a college basketball player.”

On family vacations to Miramar Beach, Fla., there was Todd, standing with his little girl, waiting for the only court on the property to clear.

‘How long will it be? Another hour?’ No problem. Grace wasn’t going anywhere until the drills were finished. 

“Once she got older, she met NBA star point guard Chris Paul and he explained to her, ‘Once you have it [dribbling] to a certain level, you don’t necessarily need to do it every single day,’” Todd Berger said. “It was the best day of my life.” 

Berger’s high school career was impressive, but in more of a subtle way than most prep phenoms. Scoring just over 15 points per game as a senior at Sacred Heart Academy in Louisville, Berger’s intensity at practice is what hooked Coach Moren.

Grace Berger driving to the hoop in the Indiana – Kentucky All-Star Game. (Courtesy: Grace Berger)

Coach Moren’s second season in Bloomington was the Hoosiers’ first 20-win season… ever. It started a streak that will reach seven consecutive 20-win seasons in 2022. 

In 2017, Moren knew she needed to capitalize on the energy around the program, and Berger fit the mold perfectly.

“She [Moren] is just the most competitive person I’ve ever been around,” Berger said. “She demands the best every single day from every person in the program. I think early on [at IU] she didn’t necessarily have the kids that could go along with that, but now we have a lot of girls that have bought into her vision and believe in her.”

Berger continued: “We didn’t come in as being a top-five team. We didn’t come in as being a bunch of McDonald’s All-Americans. She’s developed us to just buy into the process of working hard every single day, and just outworking our opponents.”

This is where Berger’s mom, Mary Berger, comes in. Where was Grace going to play college basketball? 

The decision was completely in Grace’s court, but Mary’s family laid the foundation without knowing it.

It was a Hoosier family through and through, and Grace was hooked. 

After her sophomore season at Sacred Heart, Berger, one of the top high school players in the state of Kentucky, announced she was crossing the Ohio River and heading two hours north to Bloomington, Ind.

And she meant business.

A stand at the Alamo

The texts were flying around the local Louisville basketball community that morning in 2019. ‘Did you watch ESPN’s SportsCenter last night?’ 

Indiana’s freshman guard, one of the first to come off the Hoosiers’ bench each Big Ten game, just clocked in at No. 7 on the SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays around the world of sports.

Taking on rival Purdue for the first time at Assembly Hall, here is Berger pushing the ball and spinning to her right at three-quarters court. 

The Boilers’ defender stays with her and, at half court, Berger dials up a behind-the-back dribble from left hand to the right.

The Boilers’ defender is now laying face-down on the Indiana logo at center court, trying to figure out what happened. 

Berger turns on the jets and is met by another Purdue defender inside the free-throw line. Boom. It’s another spin move back to her ‘weak’ hand. The left-handed layup goes off the backboard and in. Assembly Hall erupts.

Berger and the Hoosiers won that night and are now a perfect 6-0 against their arch enemy in-state dating back to 2019. 

The summer that followed took Berger’s work behind the scenes to a new level. Coach Moren called it one of the “most dedicated” summers she witnessed as a coach.

As a sophomore, Berger upped her scoring from 5.5 points to over 13 points per contest, becoming an All-Big Ten First Team selection as Indiana climbed to No. 12 in the country, the best ranking in program history. The Hoosiers grabbed the nation’s attention early, pulling off an early-season upset of national powerhouse No. 5 South Carolina.

For Moren, everything was coming together, and the Hoosiers were primed to make serious noise in the NCAA Tournament for the first time.

You know what happens next: the COVID-19 pandemic cancels March Madness across the board, and behind the scenes, Berger goes back to work. 

Following the shutdown, a letdown wasn’t coming under Coach Moren’s watch.

Berger was once again an All-Big Ten First Team selection as a junior, averaging over 15 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists per game. Her all-around game gained national praise, leading the NCAA with three triple-double performances. 

During a regular-season showdown against Big Ten powerhouse Maryland, Berger took the floor despite the recent passing of her grandmother.

The performance that followed lifted the entire family as Berger scored a career-high 26 points.

Indiana celebrates after defeating No. 1 North Carolina State in the 2021 NCAA Tournament Sweet 16. (Courtesy: IU Athletics)

Indiana earned a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, its highest seed in program history, and promptly throttled VCU and Bellmont in the first and second rounds. 

San Antonio hosted the entire NCAA Tournament field of 64-teams and up next for the Hoosiers was No. 1 seed, North Carolina State. 

The Wolfpack were at the Sweet 16 round for the 14th time in program history. For the Hoosiers? This was a first.

For a moment, this storyline meant something as NC State jumped out to an 8-point first-quarter lead. 

Indiana opened the second quarter with five baskets by five different players and never looked back. Led by Ali Patberg (17 points), McKenzie Holmes (16 points), and a double-double by Berger (12 points, 12 rebounds), all five of Moren’s starters finished in double figures.

NC State’s last-second three-point attempt by Elissa Cunane hit glass, then the hardwood in San Antonio.

The Indiana bench stormed to center court in possession of their first ticket to the Elite Eight.

Red, white & gold

Indiana’s bid for a spot at the 2021 Final Four was stopped by Arizona and Berger temporarily changed out the cream and crimson colors for Team USA gear.

Selected to the 12-member Team USA roster for 2021 FIBA Women’s AmeriCup, Berger helped the squad to a 6-0 record, scoring 13 points in the quarterfinal victory over the Virgin Islands.

Berger and Team USA left San Juan with gold medals, and then it was back to work in Bloomington. 

The Hoosiers’ 2021-2022 season started with a 7-0 start in Big Ten play and they ascended to the No. 5 team in America. 

Ahead of Thanksgiving, Berger’s half-court buzzer-beater ahead of halftime highlighted Indiana’s blowout victory over rival No. 13 Kentucky. 

In mid-January, Purdue finally thought it had Indiana’s number, but with a four-point lead inside of the final minute, the Boilers couldn’t find an answer for Berger. Her jumper in the final seconds led to overtime and, ultimately, the Hoosiers’ sixth straight win in the series.

Grace Berger driving to the hoop against Nebraska. (Courtesy: IU Athetics)

“Without Grace Berger in this program the last four years, we wouldn’t have been able to have done and accomplish these things,” Moren said. “She is the full package; she is a terrific student and has graduated in three years. We both hate to lose a lot more than we love to win, and we both love to win a whole lot.”

Now, the Hoosiers (19-6, 11-4) find themselves in contention for a Big Ten Regular Season Championship for the first time in nearly four decades.

Berger will be back next season to use her final year of eligibility after the COVID-19 shortened 2019-2020 season.

What is exactly driving Grace Berger? It’s a complicated question, one, maybe, that she still doesn’t fully understand.

But, when asked early in her high school career, there is someone who enters this equation who Grace has never met. And maybe this is where you find your connection with Grace Berger. 

Todd Berger’s father passed away before Grace was born, leaving Grace without a grandparent who certainly would have watched hundreds of hours of her games by this point.

Or, perhaps, he hasn’t missed a single moment.

“I hope he would be proud of me,” Grace Berger said. “From what I’ve heard from my dad, and how my dad has raised me, I’m hoping he would be proud of me. I know my dad’s proud of me and still comes to every single game. Obviously, I wish my grandpa could be at every game. But I realize he’s watching from above. I just hope that I put my best effort into everything that I’m doing. I think that would make him proud alone.”

Grace Berger’s late grandfather. (Courtesy: Berger family)

Indiana’s last women’s basketball Big Ten Regular Season title came in 1983, and, just like Moren and Berger set out to do, there is the potential for major history on the horizon this March. 

And this time at Indiana, it’s on the women’s side.