No Grace Berger, no problem for No. 5 Indiana women's basketball, which recorded the program's largest win over a ranked opponent since at least the 1999-00 season by demolishing No. 6 North Carolina 87-63 in Bloomington on Thursday.
Both teams were undefeated heading into the clash, part of the final iteration of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, with Indiana recently coming away with two victories at a holiday event in Las Vegas and the Tar Heels (6-1) clinching the crown at the Phil Knight Invitational in Portland.
The victory, and how they did it without their star, turned heads across the nation that Indiana could be a Final Four contender come spring. ESPN bracketologist Charlie Creme tweeted after the game that Indiana solidified its status as a No. 1 seed at least for the time being. The Hoosiers made the program's first Elite Eight in 2021 before advancing to the Sweet 16 in 2022.
Indiana (8-0) entered Thursday 8-40 against Associated Press top 10 opponents since 1999-2000; their largest wins over such teams in that span were by 14 points.
"I don't think it was exactly a statement," Sydney Parrish, a transfer from Oregon, said of the win. "I think we just played how we play, and we come out every game really prepared from our coaching staff. We just came out and played hard. It's not really a statement for us. We should play like that every night."
Berger was injured early in their Nov. 25 game against Auburn, so with essentially two games without her under their belts, the Hoosiers had already built some confidence that they could play and win without her. Senior forward Mackenzie Holmes continued on her recent rampage with a fourth-straight 20-point game, while Parrish nearly matched a career-high with 24 points. With Holmes (26 points) getting it done inside, the Hoosiers also sank 12 3s, tying a season-high.
"This group is special because of the firepower that we do have," said head coach Teri Moren, who wore a sweatshirt with Berger's likeness on it for the game. "Now will it show up every night? Maybe not. But what will show up every night is going to be our defense and our ability to rebound and our toughness. That's where it starts."
Indiana also has seven newcomers this year -- including Parrish, Minnesota transfer Sara Scalia and freshman Yarden Garzon -- after having lost three starters from last season.
"Our chemistry obviously has come together nicely and quickly. Probably quicker than I thought it could. We have a lot of veterans, we have a lot of maturity out there. We have a lot of wisdom out there. A lot of kids that have played in big-time games, and so tonight was no different. This is a team that has high expectations. We have lofty goals and they know that every game that we play is important, but it's part of the process of us getting to where we want to ultimately be."
While Indiana remains one of the frontrunners to win the Big Ten -- which currently boasts five teams ranked in the AP poll -- it's unclear how long they'll have to play without Berger: The 6-foot senior guard is out "indefinitely," Moren said Thursday, adding there's "no real timetable" for her return. An honorable mention All-American last season and three-time All-Big Ten first-team selection, Berger averaged 10.3 points, 4.8 assists and 5.0 rebounds in 24.2 minutes per game to start the season. She was seen on crutches and with a knee brace on the bench at the UNC game.