By Josh Ayen | @jayen1996
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS — Holly Hoopingarner still remembers the last time an IUPUI women’s basketball team played in a conference championship game.
In the 2016-2017 season, Hoopingarner’s freshman season with IUPUI, the Jaguars were seconds away from winning the Summit League title. IUPUI ultimately fell in overtime to Western Illinois, 77-69. Hoopingarner admitted that championship game has lingered in the back of her mind throughout her career.
“It’s been a journey since then,” Hoopingarner said after the Jaguars defeated Green Bay, 51-37, for their first Horizon League Women’s Basketball Championship. “This team has changed and grown so much since 2017, but for me I’ve always had that in the back of my mind – just that feeling that we almost had it.”
Three years after falling short in the Summit League title game, Hoopingarner stood on a victory stand at Indiana Farmers Coliseum, wearing her championship hat and T-shirt, and accepted the Most Valuable Player award. Hoopingarner totaled 29 points, seven rebounds and five assists in the semifinal and championship games.
Hoopingarner had been on the cusp of a program-first NCAA tournament appearance throughout her time at IUPUI. Yet her first three seasons all resulted in appearances in the WNIT.
In her final season as a Jaguar, Hoopingarner was determined to help this program reach uncharted waters.
Hoopingarner finished with a game-high 16 points. She tied a season-high total of four 3-pointers, the last of which came with 59 seconds to go in the third quarter and a 14-point Jaguar lead reduced to five points, as close as the Phoenix would get.
Hoopingarner set the tone for IUPUI as the Jaguars raced out of the gate with an 8-0 lead over runner-up Green Bay. When Green Bay tried to mount a comeback, Hoopingarner stepped up when the team needed her most. With Green Bay looking to narrow a deficit to single digits before the half, Hoopingarner calmly knocked down a 3-pointer to put the Jaguars ahead, 31-19, at the half.
Hoopingarner also stepped up in the second half as both teams struggled to score. Along with her hot shooting, Hoopingarner made her presence known all afternoon on defense. Parkinson implemented a full-court press to disrupt Green Bay’s offensive rhythm for most of the game. The head coach put Hoopingarner in charge of making life difficult for Green Bay’s ballhandlers.
Green Bay could never find its rhythm on offense. The Phoenix only converted 34% of their shots, including 18.8% from 3-point range. Green Bay was also held scoreless for the entire fourth quarter.
IUPUI coach Austin Parkinson praised Hoopingarner for her ability to step up on the biggest stage of her basketball career.
“I’m really proud of Holly,” he said. “She’s always been a leader, but in the biggest game of her career she stepped up on defense and on offense.”
As the IUPUI women’s basketball program has grown over the years, so too has Hoopingarner. Parkinson remembers Hoopingarner’s early years at IUPUI when she struggled on defense. Seeing Hoopingarner spearhead the full-court press was special for her coach.
“Seeing her fly around out there was a really proud moment for me because she’s grown in her four years,” Parkinson said.
Hoopingarner has also embraced her role as the leader of this team. Teammates are quick to point out the leadership qualities that she has brought to this team.
“Her leadership is insane, out of this world,” said junior Macee Williams, the two-time Horizon League Player of the Year. “She always tells us, even in practice, where to go. If we’re down on ourselves, she’s always the one to pick us up, or vice versa.”
Parkinson credits Hoopingarner for her leadership and keeping the rest of the team accountable all season. The head coach mentioned how Hoopingarner got teammates to run extra sprints after a recent practice.
“I found out after one of the practices this week that she had Rachel (McLimore) and Macee come up and run sprints after practice.”
Hoopingarner will have at least one more opportunity to put on a IUPUI jersey in next week’s NCAA tournament. Regardless of how the season ends for IUPUI, Hoopingarner has helped propel the Jaguars to a far better place than where they were when she joined them four years ago.