IUPUI women get second chance to make first NCAA impression

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Macee Williams paused briefly last week to savor the final seconds of IUPUI’s Horizon League title run. Then she turned to assistant women’s basketball coach Holly Hoopingarner, gave her a hug and the tears welled up.

The four-time conference player of the year thought back to the joyous celebration they had shared two years earlier when they led the Jaguars to their first Division I tourney crown and earned the school’s first NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament bid. Players spent those next few days earnestly debating who they’d face, where’d they play, how they’d be remembered—only to have NCAA officials crush their dreams by canceling the tournament because of COVID-19.

For Hoopingarner, the only senior on that roster, it was a double blow. Her career was over, too.

Now Hoopingarner and Williams have been reunited and finally will make their overdue journey together for Friday night’s first-round contest between the 13th-seeded Jaguars and the fourth-seeded University of Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma.

“That was the biggest disappointment because I thought we achieved what we wanted and to have that taken away from you was just tough,” Hoopingarner said. “So to get a chance to come back and do it again as a coach, it’s like a dream come true.”

The smile on Hoopingarner’s face and the emotions of her ex-teammates illustrates this is no act.

They see it as a second chance for their emerging program to make a first impression on the world of women’s basketball, to make the the most of the curveball life threw at them..

Longtime coach Austin Parkinson seemingly had IUPUI’s program on the right track by 2015-16.

But things really changed when he persuaded Hoopingarner to make the 16-mile trek from Greenwood High School to IUPUI’s downtown Indianapolis campus in 2016-17.

Her pesky play and intense demeanor made her an instant favorite in a basketball state where fans treasure grittiness and great passes over highlight-reel buzz. When Hoopingarner eagerly traded in her primary scoring role as a prep star to become the point guard, Parkinson had the cornerstone he needed to become a contender and a local star to generate interest, too.

Her parents became regulars at IUPUI games and the friends who watched her outplay local boys on Little League fields years earlier continued following her success just down the road.

Hoopingarner became a two-time all-conference selection, a team captain and a conference Medal of Honor recipient for her work on and off the court. Most of all, though, she was a winner.

From the time IUPUI made the jump from Division II to Division I basketball in the late 1990s, the program had posted just three 20-win seasons. Hoopingarner was part of four straight 20-win teams, including the 2016-17 squad that won a Division I school record 24 but lost in overtime to Wright State in the conference tourney.

When the 6-foot-2 Williams arrived the next season, things meshed quickly. Williams was named the conference freshman of the year and Parkinson wasn’t surprised by the connection, given his basketball pedigree.

He played for Gene Keady at Purdue. His father, Bruce, still holds Purdue’s career record with 690 assists and his grandfather, Jack, played for Adolph Rupp at Kentucky. Parkinson’s father and grandfather are both Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame members, and yet Hoopingarner stood apart.

“Holly is the best leader I’ve ever been around,” said Austin Parkinson, who left his IUPUI men’s assistant job to take over the then scandal-tinged women’s team in September 2010.

Williams was named conference player of the year as a sophomore and junior, the second year being the season Hoopingarner took home Horizon League tourney MVP honors for leading IUPUI past Green Bay in the title game.

So when their historic NCAA tourney chance was lost, Hoopingarner wasn’t the only one upset.

“For Holly, it sucked because that was her senior year,” Williams recalled, before describing those final moments while winning this year’s tourney MVP award. “I feel like Holly and I had a moment there. We hugged for a little bit and I kind of got teary-eyed because I knew COVID took that away from her and even though she’s not technically playing, she’s still experiencing what we are.”

Getting back proved equally challenging.

Hoopingarner left last season to become a graduate assistant at Florida while the Jags were projected to repeat as league champs.

But when league officials used a COVID-season calculation to tabulate the standings, IUPUI wound up fifth despite posting an 11-3 league mark. They lost to top-seeded Wright State in the tourney.

This year, Parkinson hired Hoopingarner as a full-time assistant, a job that became even more hectic when Parkinson opted not to replace an assistant who left the program near the start of the season. Instead, he asked more of Hoopingarner and associate head coach Latrell Fleming.

The Jags responded by going 24-6, a record that includes two early-season forfeits in conference play that stuck even after league officials changed the rules in December. Their resume also includes an overtime loss at No. 12 Michigan and a 74-73 victory at No. 8 Iowa, which shared the Big Ten regular-season title and won the tourney title.

And now, two years after missing out, Williams, Hoopingarner and Parkinson are finally here—preparing together for IUPUI’s first NCAA tournament game.

“It’s amazing being able to come back and do this all again. It’s like deja vu,” Hoopingarner said. “It’s the best feeling in the world.”

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