December 1, 2023
‘A full-circle moment’: Mackenzie Holmes, proud Mainer, returns to where it all began
Holmes and the Hoosiers celebrated her Maine homecoming with a sold-out arena, and plenty of lobster rolls.
As he watched his daughter jog onto the floor, Lenny Holmes could only smile.
He’d seen this pregame ritual so many times before — in state championships, in Big Ten tournaments, in Elite Eights. But this moment was different.
The memories flashed in front of his eyes, of the time he raced down the stairs on the other side of the arena so his daughter could get a bite of Dunkin’ Donuts before a high school tournament game, and the time she left her junior year championship game with an injury to her left knee, only to return and nearly will her team back from a double-digit deficit.
It was Nov. 30, Thursday night, at Cross Insurance Arena in Portland, Maine. A night where 5,979 people packed in to watch what the casual fan looking at the schedule could’ve mistaken for a random non-conference matchup between the 17th-ranked Indiana Hoosiers and the Maine Black Bears.
But Thursday night was anything but random. It was a night Mackenzie Holmes could’ve only ever dreamt of, her two worlds colliding: Indiana women’s basketball, a program she’s helped elevate to one of the best in the country and Maine, her home state known for its lobsters and moose and, at least on Thursday, basketball.
UMaine, the gracious hosts, kept the game interesting. Indiana trailed for most of the first three quarters before a late surge propelled the Hoosiers to a 67–59 win, with Holmes finishing the night scoring 22 points on 9-of-11 shooting, adding seven rebounds and two blocks.
When the final horn sounded and she’d finished celebrating the win with her teammates, all Holmes could do was look around at the crowd — the largest in UMaine women’s basketball history — and wave. From family and friends in the stands, to a young girl sitting courtside holding a Mackenzie Holmes basketball card and sharpie in hopes of getting an autograph, the love certainly felt mutual.
“Just extremely grateful that we had this opportunity,” Holmes said after. “This was a great environment for women’s basketball, and just to be able to come back here and play probably my last game ever in Cross Insurance [Arena] is just incredible.”
‘A long journey’
Holmes grew up in Gorham, a town of just under 20,000 people about 15 miles west of Portland.
Even though her high school, and the state as a whole, was never known for churning out basketball talent, she’d always had her sights set high. Both of her parents coached, and her mom, Denise, always brought her along to practices.
“I love it, and it’s kind of cool when your kids do too,” Denise said ahead of Thursday’s game.
Indiana was the best school to make her an offer, and head coach Teri Moren made sure to do everything she could to lure her out of the Northeast, even flying all the way to Gorham to attend an open gym.
“The only reason I would’ve gone to Maine is because we knew we wanted her to be a part of our program here,” Moren said. “It wasn’t really an evaluation; it was more just doing what we have to do, and that’s showing [interest] and making the effort to be seen by her because we knew it was going to take an awful lot to get her out of the state of Maine.”
Moren’s overture had its intended effect, and Holmes was off to Bloomington.
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Now in her fifth and final season, she’s averaged nearly 17 points, seven rebounds and two blocks per game through her career. She helped lead the Hoosiers to an Elite Eight appearance in 2020–21 and a Big Ten regular season championship in 2022–23. If not for Caitlin Clark, she’d probably have at least one Big Ten player of the year award to her name as well.
Moments for deep introspection are fleeting, especially during the grind of a season. But Thursday was Holmes’ chance to reflect, both on her time at Indiana and on all the work she put in growing up to get there.
“I don’t know if in my wildest dreams I could’ve imagined the things I’ve been able to do at Indiana University and accomplish individually and as a team,” she said. “It’s been a long journey. It’s kind of a full-circle moment for me coming back here tonight.”
‘The perfect ambassador’
Holmes loves Maine. Like, really loves Maine.
“When we touched down here, she kind of looked around and smiled,” said senior guard Sydney Parrish. “You could tell it meant a lot to her.”
On Wednesday night, the team ate at DiMillo’s, a seafood restaurant on Portland Harbor. It was an experience Holmes had always wanted to be able to share with her teammates.
“I don’t think anyone understands, especially living in the midwest, whenever you go out to restaurants and have seafood, it’s in a landlocked state, so any seafood you’re getting is frozen or maybe has been sitting out for awhile,” said Cam Holmes, Mackenzie’s brother and former Indiana practice player. “Whenever Kenzie talks about Maine, or whenever she would go out to restaurants, she would always talk about how good the food is.”
Her home state is also, her dad posited, a place where she’s found peace in the midst of the crazy life that comes with being a college basketball player.
“The state of Maine is kind of simple in a way, and she just loves it,” Lenny said. “She could come here, and it’s a place she can relax, go to the beach, go to the ocean and just be herself. That’s really special for her, and that’s kind of why she was so choked up about coming back. It’s just a place most people don’t know anything about, and she can bring them back here, and they can all enjoy it.”
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While Holmes was busy introducing her teammates and coaches to Maine cuisine (lobster rolls were a popular order per Moren), her family was busy making sure everyone who wanted to come to the game could get a ticket.
Lenny started putting together a guest list as soon as the game was added to IU’s schedule. First he told the arena it’d be about 150 to 200 people. A couple weeks later, it was about 400 or 500. Then it was 700. Finally, he stopped at 1,000.
“I got it to a thousand. I’m like, ‘I’m done. I’m not doing this anymore,’” he laughed. “We have a thousand people here who got tickets to support her.”
That included Cam, who woke up at 4:30 a.m., flew from Bloomington, Illinois where he works as a graduate assistant with Illinois State women’s basketball and made several connecting flights, before finally making his way to Portland to surprise his sister. She didn’t think he was going to be able to make it.
“He’s like, ‘I work in basketball, too, Mack. It’s not all about you,’” Holmes said her brother had texted her the night before. “He was being sassy to me. … And then we ran out, and I saw him, and I was like, ‘Oh.’ Was a little bit in shock.”
Although he had to miss Illinois State’s game against Chicago State, Cam knew he couldn’t not be in Portland.
“An atmosphere like this and being able to see my sister play in her home state is more than worth it,” he said.
“I don’t have enough good things to say about her,” he continued, discussing the impact she’s had on basketball in Maine. “I know there’s this thing about sibling rivalries and stuff like that, but she’s the perfect ambassador for the game of basketball. I’m so glad that young girls have a role model like her to look up to.”
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Playing a college basketball game is hard enough in itself. Playing a college basketball game where literally every eyeball in the arena watches your every step can only seem daunting. Unless, of course, you’re Mackenzie Holmes.
With poise, steadiness and her deceptively elite footwork, she flashed her brilliance on the court, validating the excitement of everyone who came out to watch her play.
Even Maine head coach Amy Vachon couldn’t help but acknowledge the significance of the evening.
“I want to just thank Indiana for coming back to Maine,” she said postgame. “I know it meant a ton to Mackenzie, and it means a ton to the state of Maine, too. Not a lot of programs would do that. Top-ranked team coming here. It’s hard to get teams to come play us, so kudos to them, and all my admiration for Mackenzie. That kid is just a tremendous basketball player.”
Moren said Wednesday that she likes trying to schedule these non-conference games close to players’ hometowns, allowing friends and family who might not be able to make frequent treks to Bloomington to see them play.
Suffice to say, this homecoming, for one of the top players in the country, in a state known more for blueberries than basketball, was extra special. In the standings it’s just another win for the Hoosiers who have high hopes once again this season of making a deep NCAA Tournament run. But it was a day that Holmes, her teammates, her family and everyone in attendance could look back at with pure joy.
“We really wanted to win this game for her,” Parrish said. “I know we say it’s obviously a team effort and we want to win for each other and we want to win for Coach, but tonight was for Mackenzie.”
Written by Eric Rynston-Lobel
Eric Rynston-Lobel has been a contributor to The Next since August 2022. He covered Northwestern women's basketball extensively in his four years as a student there for WNUR and now works as a sports reporter for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire.