Triple-double Berger helps IU women taste success

Grace Berger was bleary-eyed and exhausted even before she took the floor at Penn State on Jan. 7.

Three flights and a funeral in five days will do that to a person.

It was the first road trip of the 2020-21 season for the Indiana women’s basketball team and one Berger will never forget for a myriad of reasons.

First and foremost among them was her grandmother, Voncille McGovern Smith. Voncy, as she was simply known, passed away in her New Albany home on New Year’s Day at age 93 after several months of declining health.

Berger wasn’t going to miss a game, nor was she going to miss the funeral of her meemaw, an IU loyalist Grace describes as “the biggest fan of a school I’ve ever seen.”

After scoring a career-high 26 points at Maryland on Jan. 4, it was up at 4 a.m. to catch a flight from Washington, D.C., to Detroit to Indianapolis where Berger picked up a rental car, drove to Bloomington for a COVID test and arrived in Louisville, Ky., five minutes before her grandmother’s funeral started.

The next morning, it was up at 6 a.m. to drive back to Bloomington for another test then on to Indianapolis for a flight that would allow Berger to catch up with her teammates at Penn State.

A lack of sleep was a mental hurdle she had long struggled to overcome. If she doesn’t sleep well, she won’t play well.

“I was not expecting to have a very good game at Penn State,” Berger admitted. “I was pretty tired and jet-lagged.”

Things may have started that way against the Nittany Lions — shots weren’t falling — but the rebounds and assists were piling up for the 6-foot guard as the fatigue began to fade.

And when Berger poured in 11 fourth-quarter points, she had pulled off something that had been done only once before in school history — a triple-double with 15 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds.

The only player to previously record a triple-double? Grace Berger.

The next player to record a triple-double? Grace Berger.

She is the unicorn of IU women’s basketball.

***

“Grace is just different.”

Tim Barnett knew it from the first time he saw a spindly fifth-grader and her dad getting up shots at a gym. Barnett, a former Division I player and founder of F.O.C.U.S. Training Academy in Louisville, Ky., walked over and introduced himself.

“If you want to get in extra work, don’t hesitate to call me,” he told Grace and her father, Todd.

They did, and for the past 10 years, Barnett has helped Grace pursue her goals, something she does relentlessly.

So much so that when she was in seventh grade, Barnett created a banner that he put on display at his gym, where it remains. At the top of a picture of Grace shooting the ball is a one-word description: Dedicated.

“Every time she comes home, she’s in the gym,” Barnett said. “It sounds cliche, but it’s 100 percent fact — no matter if it’s raining or snowing or whatever, if you pull in her neighborhood, she’s in the driveway (shooting).”

One year later, Barnett presented Grace with a new challenge during the AAU season. He played the eighth-grader up with his 17U FOCUS team at one of the nation’s biggest events, Battle in the Boro.

Going up against Florida Basketball Club, which boasted some of the most athletic, physically imposing players in the country, with a standing-room-only crowd of coaches on hand, Berger made an impressive introduction.

“She was this frail-looking kid, and I really believe they thought they would have their way with her,” Barnett said. “She finished that game with 25 points, hit five 3s, was just unbelievable, and we won the game.

“Times like that, I knew, the bigger the stage, the better she’d perform. She wanted to be in the moment.”

From the moment last season ended prematurely due to the pandemic, Grace wanted to be ready when she got the chance to take the stage again.

Even with the city of Louisville virtually shut down, Barnett’s gym was open to a handful of close friends and acquaintances, such as rising Louisville senior Dana Evans, former Cardinal and WNBA rookie Jazmine Jones and, of course, Berger, along with several other Division I players.

“Grace probably worked out just as much when she was at home during the pandemic as she normally would have,” said Todd Berger, who suddenly had a part-time job as a rebounder. “She didn’t miss a stride. She was still doing shooting drills two or three hours a day and lifting weights, running, doing two-ball dribbles, passing drills.

“Really, she kept doing everything she’d been doing for the past 10-15 years, nothing new. She’s been practicing four or five hours a day since the second grade.”

Going one-on-one against Evans and Jones was just an added bonus, one that validated Barnett’s belief in Grace’s talent, both in the present and in the future — at the next level.

“I couldn’t wait until Grace got home, because Grace is just as good as those girls,” Barnett said. “I told those girls, ‘I’m sorry, but I’m a huge IU fan. The only other team (besides Louisville) you’ll see me rep is IU, and I only like them because of Grace.

“When it came time for her to go back to school, there was no doubt in my mind she was ready.”

***

There had never been a triple-double in IU women’s basketball history when the Hoosiers tipped off this season against Eastern Kentucky at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.

And there had been only two triple-doubles in IU men’s basketball history — one by Steve Downing on Feb. 23, 1971, and another by Juwan Morgan on Dec. 23, 2018 — both in Assembly Hall.

In just 25 minutes against Eastern Kentucky, Berger recorded 17 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, surprising even herself.

“I wouldn’t have ever thought I’d get a triple-double,” the junior said. “When I got one in the first game this year, I was kind of shocked. I had no idea.

“Yeah, it’s definitely come as a shock to me, not anything I expected.”

Nor anything that gets her overly excited, unlike her family.

“We’re more excited about everything than she is,” Todd Berger said. “Her goals are pretty high.”

Grace’s statistics, on the other hand, haven’t always been high enough to grab the headlines.

From the time she was in grade school, scoring points wasn’t the priority, something that was evident in her choice of a favorite player — Louisville native Rajon Rondo.

She attended Camp Rondo sporting a Boston Celtics jersey in elementary school, then met Rondo at F.O.C.U.S. in sixth grade — “picked his brain,” according to Barnett — and renewed the acquaintance just last summer.

It only reinforced the lessons Grace’s dad taught her at a young age about the importance of passing.

“I did tell her if she got teammates involved, they’d play better defense, back in third, fourth grade,” Todd said. “If you get little Sally a shot, she’ll play harder on the other end.”

There were times during high school and AAU games when parents and coaches alike wished Grace didn’t take that idea to heart.

Against the best opponents, she’d average 22 points per game. Against lesser teams, maybe only four or five points per game.

“One of her AAU coaches called me and said to tell her to get 20 a game against bad teams in high school,” Todd said. “She wasn’t going to do it.”

What she was going to do is whatever it took to win — points, rebounds, steals, assists.

It was the framework of the triple-doubles to come.

***

First team All-Big Ten … again.

Berger averaged 15.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 5 assists per game — the lowest points per game by any of the 10 players voted first team by media or coaches.

But Berger had something unique — not one, not two, but three triple-doubles, tying the single-season Big Ten record and giving her the second-most by any Big Ten player in a career.

“I’m not surprised,” Barnett said. “I think that she’s capable, such an unselfish player and kid. If she was more selfish, (a triple-double) would almost be the norm. She’s just that kind of player that does it all. The game kind of comes easy for her in a sense.”

And for some reason, it came a little easier this season against Penn State.

The Nittany Lions made the return trip to Bloomington on Feb. 10, but Berger wasn’t thinking about a triple-double. She was just thankful for the chance to prepare in a relatively normal way for the second game.

“(The first game was) definitely a long week, probably the longest road trip of my life,” Grace said. “But we were able to finish it with a win, so it was successful.”

Winning is the only thing that matters in her mind. Grace doesn’t expect any credit for a positive result but absorbs blame for a loss like a sponge. Many father-daughter conversations involve Todd talking Grace “off the ledge.”

But there was no ledge, just an edge to the second matchup between IU and Penn State. Berger made history repeat itself with 17 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists.

“They definitely like to play a fast-paced game, so that definitely helps,” she said. “I feel like I’m at my best in transition, so I think that helps me get the stats in those games.

“I think it’s just pretty much a complete coincidence that it happened again (against Penn State).”

Maybe not so coincidentally, Berger’s triple-doubles have all come in games where she hasn’t gotten off to a hot start shooting the ball, so she finds another way to get involved in the game.

“I think I’ve always been the kind of player, and especially now that I have such great teammates, that kind of lets the game come to me,” Grace said. “If it’s a game I’m not scoring the ball as much or not feeling my shot, I’ll try to get my teammates some open looks. I think that’s what’s happened when I’ve gotten the triple-doubles is I’ve missed my first few shots and have not really been feeling it offensively, so I try to make something happen for Mackenzie (Holmes) or Ali (Patberg) or some of my other teammates. Once you get going that way, some scoring comes.

“I don’t force anything, just let the game come to me, just feel it out what kind of game it’s going to be.”

She got a feel for the NCAA Tournament as a freshman. Two games — a win over Texas and a loss to Oregon. Grace calls that experience the favorite memory of her basketball career, not recording a triple-double.

But as with the rest of her game, she doesn’t want to just match that experience, she wants to exceed it, starting with the Hoosiers’ first-round game against VCU on Monday at 2 p.m.

And Grace knows exactly who she wants to do it for — Voncy.

“She was a big Hoosier fan, a lifelong IU basketball fan, so I think I’ve used that as motivation all season and going into the postseason, just to do things that have never been done at IU,” she said. “(I do it) kind of in her honor, so that’s definitely been a motivating factor for me.”

Berger already has the triple-doubles to prove it.

3 comments

  1. The lady is DRIVEN. Driven to succeed, Driven to, “Do the work, “ the work of Moren’s program.
    Now we learn here that she’s been doing it since 5th grade.
    When the going gets tough, she’s the toughian that gets going – giving her all to lead, as hard, fast and best as she can despite her soft-spoken manner. Late or not, her late-game tank is the one that’s never empty, and she’s among the best at maintaining composure while playing as if her hair were on fire.
    You could say she’s, “True Grace under fire.”

  2. ANOTHER great article by Jeremy Price. Captured the essence of Grace Berger perfectly.
    Now, let’s fool some folks in San Antonio ladies!
    GO IUWBB!

  3. I have said more than once this season that grace is the best “All around player” that has ever played at IU in the women’s game! Her defense to go along with her offensive stats earn her that moniker!! Her only approach to the game is winning! She is an incredible team-mate to run along side of! While Ali is the leader of our team, Grace is the engine that keeps us running at a high level! Her demeaner on the floor never changes as does her expression, not to high nor to low. Her expression on her face is stoic and concentrated as she slices and dices the opposition! I would hate to play against her one-on-one! Her constant physicality is what fuels our team to play at such a high level!! What a great example she shows for IU basketball!! Go Hoosiers!!

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