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Indiana, Miami preparing for Holmes’ return in March Madness

Mackenzie Holmes #54 of the Indiana Hoosiers shoots the ball against the Michigan Wolverines at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall on February 16, 2023 in Bloomington, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Top-seeded Indiana needs All-America center Mackenzie Holmes to carry a heavy burden — if the team intends to fulfill its championship hopes.

It appears the Big Ten’s defensive player of the year will be back Monday night.

One day after watching her teammates roll past Ohio Valley Conference Tournament champion Tennessee Tech, Holmes made it through most of Sunday’s practice and appeared ready to go for the Hoosiers’ second-round women’s NCAA Tournament game against ninth-seeded Miami.

“She’s more than ready to be in the lineup (Monday) and see playing time,” coach Teri Moren said. “Whether that will be limited, probably, but we’re prepared for that.”

Getting any minutes from Holmes would be a huge boost for the Hoosiers (28-3). She did not play in Saturday’s 30-point rout of the much-smaller Golden Eagles.

That decision gave Holmes extra time to recover from a sore knee, an injury Moren said dated to Holmes’ prep career in Maine. Holmes said she aggravated the injury at the Big Ten Tournament.

But after seeing the Hurricanes (20-12) use their physical style and harassing full-court pressure to rally from a 17-point halftime deficit and beat Oklahoma State, the Hoosiers know the return of the 6-foot-3 Holmes would be helpful as they seek to reach their third straight Sweet 16 and what they hope will be their first Final Four.

How crucial is Holmes to Indiana’s success?

She averages 22.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.9 blocks, all team highs; ranks second nationally with a 68.8% field goal percentage; and helps space the floor for Indiana’s perimeter shooters. Against Miami, she could become a dangerous outlet against the press.

The combination led Indiana to its first Big Ten regular-season conference crown in 40 years, a school-record No. 2 ranking in the final AP Top 25 poll, first and second-round home games for the second straight year and the first No. 1 seed in school history.

“They’re a really prolific scoring team,” Miami coach Katie Meier said. “Almost 18 assists a game, which for us is — that threatens us. The fact their team shares the ball that much and can get that many assists in a game, it’s very difficult to defend, no matter what your defensive style is.”

The Hurricanes (20-12) have seen all this before, though.

Meier, guard Haley Cavinder and forward Lola Pendande believe the Hoosiers are similar to Atlantic Coast Conference foe Virginia Tech, which Miami beat on its home court in January before losing to the Hokies in the ACC Tournament.

The Hurricanes have been in this situation previously, advancing through last season’s eight-nine game before losing 49-33 in the second round at eventual national champion and No. 1 seed South Carolina. The Hurricanes want to use some of those lessons to their advantage in front of what’s expected to be another raucous Assembly Hall crowd topping 12,000.

Even after spending so much energy in Saturday’s comeback, Meier and Miami’s players dismissed any notion they’d be fatigued in their biggest game of the season.

“I think we got a little taste of that at the ACC Tournament, understanding this is how March goes,” Cavinder said. “We definitely feel good and are prepared and focused on Indiana.”

The Hoosiers must also find ways to adapt, given Holmes’ limitations.

Lilly Meister, who had seven points and three blocks in her first career start, and Alyssa Geary are still likely to play more minutes than usual. With Holmes having played just three games since Feb. 20, Moren also figures her best player may need some time to knock off the rust.

That means players like four-time all-conference guard Grace Berger and Indiana’s 3-point shooters may need to play bigger roles to beat the kind of pressure that proved so costly in the team’s most recent loss, against Ohio State in the conference tourney.

“During their comeback, they amped up the pressure a little bit and it kind of gave me flashbacks to Ohio State when we were up big and kind of let up,” guard Sydney Parrish said. “But we’ve been preparing for presses like them and kind of more athletic and higher pressuring teams like them, so I think we’ll handle it great.”

Especially if Holmes can provide that big presence in the post.

“We have goals for this tournament and as much as we can protect Mac and allow her to take some reps off, we’re trying to take advantage of that,” Moren said. “She draws a lot of attention in the low block, but she’s become a great facilitator for us. She’s our leading scorer, so she’s a threat and she does things on the outside when she’s on the inside, so having her back will be big.”