BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (WDRB) – Well, it looks like we’re going to do this. Just when you had scratched the Indiana University basketball team off your NCAA Tournament bracket, the Hoosiers look like they may try to scratch themselves back on.
Reverting to December form, the Hoosiers hung around on Saturday against No. 6 Michigan State, stayed close, fought hard, and after trailing for virtually the entire game, went ahead on a Juwan Morgan tip in and free throw that made it 63-62 with 1:46 left.
That was that. Nobody scored the rest of the way and Indiana walked away with a 63-62 win, its second straight against a ranked opponent.
It was like so many close wins the Hoosiers had early in the season, in which they somehow found a way to stay close, then snatch victory at the end.
This one came with a twist. If I’d told you before the game that IU would get nine points from Romeo Langford, seven from Morgan and five from Rob Phinissee, you probably would’ve given me the Hoosiers and 15 points against Tom Izzo’s Spartans.
Instead, Justin Smith scored a career-high 24 points, Devonte Green added 13, the pair had three three-pointers each and combined to shoot 6-11 from beyond the arc, and the Hoosiers picked up their seventh “Quadrant 1” win of the season, in NCAA Tournament Selection Committee parlance.
“It feels good. I mean, it honestly does,” Indiana coach Archie Miller said. “It feels good to watch the guys right now just in terms of their mindset, their disposition and how they're doing things, and you've got to play tough, and you've got to play really hard, and you've got to make some things happen for yourself, and we did that today.”
The Hoosiers did several key things in this game. First, they collected 10 steals, scored 15 points off turnovers and had 15 points off the break. For a team that has labored to score, that kind of easy, quick offense is a godsend. Second, the Hoosiers dominated the boards in the late going and outrebounded Michigan State 20-11 in the second half. And they clamped down defensively, holding Michigan State scoreless in the final 4:16, no easy feat against a team that features Cassius Winston, who finished with 20 points and 11 assists despite going 0-for-2 with a turnover in the final 4:36.
“We had to fight and hang in through some ugly times, especially in the first half,” Miller said. “I thought defensively we were much better in the second half, and then as about the 12-minute mark, the 8-minute mark started to come around, you could feel our guys have a different vibe about them just in terms of their energy level, and the last four minutes being able to get some key stops, some big offensive rebounds, and Juwan sticks that one in.”
Smith was big throughout, and like the rest of the team, Miller credited his big game with a recent revamp of attitude and practice work.
“Attitude is everything. I mean, that's everything,” Miller said. “When your attitude is great and you're focused in on just doing whatever you can to help, good things tend to happen, and I think that's where Justin really changed his mindset after Iowa, and with De'Ron being sick and not really being available this past week, he was thrust back in there. Today obviously I wasn't going to take him off the floor very much. He had a career day.”
Smith said he felt due to have a big offensive game. But more important, now that the Hoosiers have won a couple of big games, he’s hoping they can keep it going and not take a step backward.
“It's definitely given us momentum,” Smith said. “We had won -- we were 1 for 12 or something like that, but we really weren't focused on that, we were taking it one game at a time, and now that we got two in a row, it's next game up. We're looking to build off of it, and it feels good to win. It always feels good to win, and we're just going to continue and we want this feeling again. That's what we're going to strive for.”
Miller credited his team for resilience and for remaking its attitude and approach in a difficult situation.
“There's no lay-down in them,” he said. “We've talked a lot about it. We've had some disappointing moments, but at the end of the day there was a lot to play for with our schedule, and this was a huge week for us just in terms of earning more confidence, finding a way to play your best at the right time, and like I said, our everyday approach really drastically needed to change. It really did. And it has, and it's led to good things just in terms of how hard we're playing. . . . They've gotten away from the worrying and feeling sorry for themselves, and they've gotten back to work, and it's good to see.”
Will it be enough to make the NCAA Tournament? That remains to be seen. These back-to-back wins over Wisconsin and Michigan State won’t mean as much if the Hoosiers turn around and lose to Illinois or Rutgers.
Indiana needs some sustained stability to diminish its disastrous month of February. But finishing out the regular season strong and stringing some wins together in the Big Ten Tournament might just do that.
“I think our resume at the end of the day will speak for itself,” Miller said. “We have two more games. You have to control what you can, and that's the only thing you've got to worry about right now. Then you have the Big Ten Tournament. But we have a unique resume. Our schedule strength is off the charts. We have some big wins against really, really highly regarded teams, and if you take the name off the front, obviously you're going to look at a stretch in the season that doesn't look very good, but it's all about how you finish. You can keep controlling what you can control right now, which is being ready for the next one. But we have to win. I mean, we have to win, period.”
At the very least, maybe the Hoosiers can’t be left for dead just yet. Against Michigan State, they showed they’re still kicking.
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