Mackenzie back Holmes again in Indiana

“How did you end up here?”

“How does a kid from Maine end up (at Indiana)?”

These are the questions Mackenzie Holmes has heard time and again throughout her freshman season as a member of the IU women’s basketball team.

The 6-foot-3 forward has made a memorable first impression as a Hoosier, averaging 11.5 points and 5.6 rebounds through her first 17 career games while shooting 68 percent from the field (two made field goals shy of qualifying for fourth on the NCAA leaderboard) and earning Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors twice thus far.

That success just means the questions persist, and the answer just might be another question.

How could she not end up at Indiana?

Maine Madness
Basketball was in Mackenzie Holmes’ blood, if not literally her crib, as the daughter of two coaches.

Lenny and Denise Holmes both coached high school basketball in Maine when she was young, and even after their divorce, Mackenzie had two teams to follow.

“I always watched, when I was younger, the teams my mom coached, even the teams my dad coached,” she said. “There would be times when I wanted to join their practice. I was 10 at the time, so I couldn’t join a varsity practice, but I loved just watching them.”

Lenny is now the club director and coach of the Maine Hoops AAU program, while Denise is an assistant coach at the University of Southern Maine.

But in those early years, the highlight for Mackenzie was winter break in February when the state tournament games would be played in the state’s largest city. Portland was just half an hour away from her home town.

“When I was younger I would go to the state championship games and just the dream was cutting down the net when I was younger, cutting down the state championship net,” Mackenzie said. “I was just like, ‘Gosh, that would be so cool. These people are so cool.’ That was a dream of mine, being in the Cumberland County Civic Center cutting down the net.”

It was a dream that came true — twice. Gorham, the smallest member of the AA large school division, won state titles when Mackenzie was a freshman and a sophomore and was state runner-up her junior year. Holmes would eventually go on to become the school’s all-time leading scorer (1,745 points), rebounder (1,018) and shot blocker (365) while starting all 84 career games.

Even as a senior, when the Rams fell short of state, she was in attendance.

“I was there every day just watching games,” she said. “You go with friends and sit there from when games start to when games end. It was an activity you did at that time (of year).”

It might quite be Hoosier Hysteria, but it’s not far off.

“Maine loves its basketball,” Lenny Holmes said. “People might say, ‘Really?’ It’s a long winter in Maine, and there isn’t much else to do. Hockey hasn’t really caught on as a spectator sport, so there’s a long tradition in Maine of basketball and crowds.

“Yeah, I would say it’s a mini-Hoosiers sequel, a true ton of passion.”

Putting in the work

Fifth-grade AAU tournaments are not typically a source of amazement.

You’ve got your dribblers, your shooters and your kids that have to play because their parents said so.

Then you had Mackenzie Holmes, a head taller than almost all of the opposition, lobbing left-handed hook shots through the net.

“Opposing coaches were like, ‘A fifth-grade girl shooting left-handed hooks? Are you kidding me?’” Lenny recalls. “… We had a lot of people saying no way was she in the fifth grade.”

Those left-handed hooks, scoops and flips have become Holmes’ signature moves during her first season at IU.

It stems from those times she tagged along with older brother Cameron, now himself a sophomore at Indiana and a member of the men’s practice squad for the Hoosier women.

“Dad would say, ‘Try taking a layup with your left hand,’ and I’d just keep practicing and practicing,” Mackenzie said. “… I would always compete against my brother, and I was better with my left than he was, which to my dad was interesting since it was so natural for me at that age.”

Mackenzie wasn’t just a one-sport athlete either. She ran track, played softball and was the rare 6-foot girls’ soccer goalie through junior high school.

“I liked soccer. It was OK, but it’s not something I was looking to pursue at all,” she said. “I just did it because my friends did it and to just be a part of something different. I did soccer and softball and track, and every time I’d step on the soccer field, I’d step on the softball field, I was just so annoyed with every other sport.

“I was just like, ‘I wish I was playing basketball right now.’ I’d miss soccer to play one little AAU game on the weekend, because that was what I wanted to be doing.”

Eighth grade didn’t just mark the end of Mackenzie’s soccer career, it was the beginning of the next step in her basketball evolution.

For the first time she stepped out of her parents’ shadows and played for another coach, joining the Maine Firecrackers AAU program under the direction of Don Briggs.

He minced no words with Mackenzie after that initial practice, a test of her fitness like none other.

“After that first practice I had with the Firecrackers, I was like, ‘Oh boy,’” she recalled. “My coach was like, ‘I don’t know if you’re cut out for this. I don’t know.’”

That was all Mackenzie needed to hear.

“I always loved basketball, but when my AAU coach told me I wasn’t cut out for this, it kind of ticked me off a little bit,” she said. “I’m a very competitive person, so I just like to work. I like to work hard. I like things to be perfect and that’s not always attainable, but I want to do everything the right way and be the best I can be, so my competitive edge I have naturally made me want to get up at 5 a.m. for lifts in the eighth grade.”

Every morning thereafter, Holmes was up at the crack of dawn lifting weights, running and generally getting in shape.

It was a trend that continued throughout high school and now into college.

“I feel like for a lot of kids the transition to the college game is hard when they’re not used to the work ethic,” Gorham girls’ basketball coach Laughn Berthiume said. “She was working out before school, up at 5 and lifting weights or running was not out of the norm. She was ready for knowing to put in extra work.”

As a high school freshman, that paid off with 14.7 points and 9.1 rebounds a game. The numbers went up to 18 points and 9.6 rebounds as a sophomore, then 21.1 points and 13.3 rebounds as a junior and finally 29.8 points and 16.7 rebounds as a senior.

Numbers aside, Mackenzie could see the difference.

“It was hard. It was really hard, but when I saw the results, it was like I had to keep doing it,” she said. “I was hungry for more and more to see what I was able to do.

“… When I started to get more physically in shape, it just helped me leaps and bounds. I was able to stay in games for longer. When you get tired, you get lazy when you play, so you miss more shots and you fall down more and you’re more prone to injury, so once I started taking care of my body more and lifting and all that stuff, that was when I began to see changes. That’s when I began getting recruited, so it was definitely a big step in the direction of college basketball.”

Becoming a Hoosier

As a young coach, Lenny Holmes once made a trek to a Bobby Knight summer basketball camp.

What he saw stuck with him, and when Indiana came inquiring about his daughter, there was immediate mutual interest.

“My dad said, ‘That’s a huge basketball state,’” Mackenzie said. “I was like ‘Really?’ and it’s all history from there.”

That history started with a conversation between IU assistant coach Rhet Wierzba and his brother, Ben, an assistant coach for the Mercer women’s basketball team, about Mackenzie.

Eventually Rhet told Indiana head coach Teri Moren, “You’ve gotta see this kid.”

She did and came away impressed.

“She’s a great story in the fact that she didn’t play on a top team, on the EYBL circuit, the Nike circuit that has some of the top kids in the country playing on it,” Moren said. “One thing that stood out when I went to watch them was the enthusiasm they had on the bench, the love they had for each other. Not only was Mackenzie good and skilled, but the kids she played with and their chemistry just stood out to me. But we found in her in a back gym, and sometimes that happens. You just never know when you’re out and watching all these teams play.”

Living in New England, there was already an inescapable link to Indiana basketball. While Lenny Holmes saw shades of the Boston Celtics’ Kevin McHale in Mackenzie’s ability to read defenses, play angles and step through defenders in the post, Moren was reminded a bit of McHale’s more famous teammate, “The Hick from French Lick.”

“Larry Bird was a throwback in the sense that he doesn’t look the part,” Moren said. “I think sometimes you look at Mackenzie, and her body has changed somewhat with Kevin (Konopasek), and it’s going to continue to change and continue to be cut and look different as she progresses here and grows here, but the way she can use her left hand, her right hand, the way she can maneuver around defenders clearly in her path — go underneath them, alter her shots and still have enough perfect English to put on the backboard for it to go in, I think about Larry Bird and some of the ridiculous things he would do.”

Throwback comparisons aside, the one thing the Holmes’ were looking for in a college destination was passion.

Outside of national power UConn, women’s basketball in the northeast lacks fan support.

One visit to Bloomington, and it was almost no contest.

As other visits commenced, Lenny quickly realized what Mackenzie’s decision was going to be.

“When we did recruiting trips to other schools, I felt like saying, ‘Why are we doing these?’” he said. “It’s clear to me you know what you want.”

What Mackenzie wanted was to play basketball someplace where it mattered.

“Even though I’m from a smaller town, basketball was a pretty big thing in my town,” she said. “Our gym was small, but we filled it. We had a lot of fans there. The energy is different when you have people who love watching you play. I wanted that where I went. Unfortunately, there are a lot of schools that don’t have that type of culture and that’s one thing I really noticed when I visited (Indiana). They really love basketball.”

Holmes’ Indiana home

The text message came a few months ago. It was short but sweet.

“Coach, I love my team.”

For Berthiume, who has watched every IU game this season on TV or online, there was little more Mackenzie Holmes could say in five words that would have made him feel better about her college decision.

That’s not to say there haven’t been growing pains, but Holmes knows what a successful team looks like, and Indiana has not disappointed.

“Team chemistry really matters, and you can tell when you watch a team where the teammates love each other and care about each other and are playing for each other,” Mackenzie said. “I think that’s something we take a lot of pride in (at Indiana) that we’re a very tight knit bunch. I could go to anybody on the team about any problem that I have and be comfortable. It’s hard for some teams to have that, and I feel I’m really lucky to go from something like back home and to here, because it’s not always like that at every program.”

There’s also quite the connection between the Hoosiers and their fans, including the Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall postgame ritual of signing autographs and taking pictures.

“I honestly look forward to that 20 minutes after the game, because I’m a people person,” Mackenzie said. “I like talking to people, I like building relationships with people, so just making new friends or whatever the case may be. I want to hear what they have to say about the games. I want to know what they thought. I want to know if they had fun and I love the little kids coming up after the game because you get to know them and recognize them after a while, so they look forward to seeing you and we look forward to seeing them. It makes it really special.”

But there are still questions, especially for the new parent in Bloomington.

“People are like, ‘Who’s your daughter?’” Lenny Holmes said. “I say, ‘Mackenzie Holmes,’ and they say, ‘Oh, we love her, so happy she came here.’”

In those moments, it’s not so hard to figure out how a kid from Maine wound up at Indiana.

15 comments

  1. A traditional Indiana back woods story located in Maine. Basketball story that Legends are made of. Mac Dog. Great job of recruiting and exactly the type of lady that makes a program great. Mac is an excellent athlete and reading this story one can see why.

  2. Jeremy– What a great in depth story on the MAC. So glad to see that 5 word text to her coach. Since you never really know if a player is happy at a new school and environment and will they be homesick. Having her brother there and on the practice team will go a long way on that issue. Even though other players are improved over last year, Mac is the true missing link that makes a difference on this team. A right handed post who more often scores with her left on the baby hook or the pivot right over left shoulder, who will get even better as time goes on. The comments keep coming not just from coaches, but from big ten commentators in awe of this super-sub freshman and cant wait to watch her play.

  3. Mac is quickly becoming another crowd favorite joining Ali, Jalen, and Brenna. She is still learning how to play against players her own size, but she gives 100% the whole time. After a year of learning how to play in the Big Ten, and a whole year of strength and conditioning Mac will be a force. Great find by our Coaches.

  4. Amazing article Jeremy.
    Your reporting (along with some of your colleagues) is the only reason I keep subscribing to the HT.
    Great insights, clearly takes a lot of time to put together an article like this.
    THANKS!
    ps. agree with others that Mac’s potential is unbelievable. Reminds me so very much of Megan Gustafson, which would put us in the very top levels.

    1. Hey Nat,
      This really just got too long, but I could’ve put another section on comparisons and who Mackenzie watched/watches as inspiration. Long story short, Megan Gustafson is one of those players according to Mackenzie, and Coach Moren had several comments regarding that comparison.

      1. Jeremy, I respectfully disagree with your assessment of the article’s length. It could have been longer! I don’t care much about the NBA, pro football, or other articles coming from some faceless/nameless sports writer from out of state.
        Do appreciate the inside information about Gustafson, Moren, and Holmes.
        Thanks1

    1. No, there is A and AA. Two classes as I understand it, big schools and small schools.
      Updated correction, Maine actually has five classes. AA, A, B, C and D.

      1. Great article Jeremy! Glad you got the correction in there. Gorham is in AA, which is a newer classification… only a few years old. We have North and South divisions of each Class, with the champs from each Division playing for the State Title. Our State Tournaments happen during February vacation at The Cumberland County Civic Center, Augusta Civic Center, and Bangor Auditorium, and then the State Title games rotate between the sites each year. The tournament games are all broadcast live on PBS throughout the state, and it’s a tradition for 100’s of people to spend their vacations going to the tournament locations and watching game after game, day after day…
        Maine really is the next closest thing to Hoosier Hysteria at the high school ranks… entire towns shut down and follow their teams 5 hours away to cheer them on in a tournament game.
        Last year the Caribou boys team won their first State Title in exactly 50 years, and they had approximately 6000 fans at the Civic Center in Portland, a 6 hour drive in the winter… which literally shut the town down for the weekend.

        Thanks for writing the article Jeremy, and sharing a little of our basketball world with my favorite fans in the world.

  5. I also liked some of the comments from coach, getting Mac more conditioned, cut , and toned, stronger. Sounds like Im referring to the $6 million dollar man. When that happens she will be even more of a force to reckon with. You go Girl!!

    Of course I had already read most of the stuff reported in this article as I have followed her closely,, another comment that was made about Holmes from her coach. “She’s the best Post in maine man or woman”

  6. Not to be overlooked T. Moren seems to recruit some really high quality Ladies with very good character. T. Moren and staff seem to challenge and facilitate development of that character as a team and Lady preparation for the future.

  7. SteveW, I made the very same statement a month ago about Holmes being the “missing link” for our team. She is the player that has caused us to turn the corner so to speak as to being an elite team nationally. With Holmes in the middle we are able to compete with anybody in the country! As was stated earlier in these posts, when Mackenzie truly gets into great shape she will be truly unstoppable. She is very tough to play against now but, she will only be better in the future. Everyone comments on her play inside but, what amazes me is the way a girl her size is able to run the floor. The future of this team is truly bright and with only one senior on the team can only get better! Go Hoosiers!!

  8. Right, Mike c. Most times running back down the floor Mac has a normal gait, but when there’s a need she kicks it into another gear which most bigs dont possess. When she does get truly in shape on those steals she sometimes gets for a break-away its likely no defender will catch her to mess up the lay in.

  9. I wonder if Coach Moren would ever consider coaching a D-1 men’s college team? It’s going to happen some day.

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