Once a free throw pinged off the front of the rim Wednesday, it was back to the hardwood for the Hoosiers and Gophers.
Indiana’s Armaan Franklin landed on top of Minnesota’s Brandon Johnson. Al Durham’s arms came in for the ball, as well, before the whistle blew. It was a picture of two desperate teams, in a six-point game, with five minutes left, just scrapping for every opportunity.
But it’s what happened next that allowed the Hoosiers to stay ahead in an 82-72 win at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. While the possession stayed with the Gophers, Durham sat down low in a defensive stance as Jamal Mashburn Jr. waited for a screener. Jerome Hunter, sticking right by Liam Robbins, hedged hard as Mashburn came around the corner.
The possession ended with a pass around the arc to Tre’ Williams, who had little choice but to hoist a contested 3-pointer. His shot went wide. The ball was back in IU’s hands.
“We played team defense,” Durham said. “I felt like we were spread out for most of the game. But in the last couple minutes, we finally locked in.”
For much of the night, IU’s defense wasn’t its strength. The combo of Mashburn and Marcus Carr created headaches on the perimeter, zipping toward the rim as the Hoosiers relinquished six-point leads in both the first and second halves. On the strength of a 57.8-percent shooting night, IU was often ahead. But not by much.
But when it mattered most, the Hoosiers buckled down. After consecutive 3s by Durham and Franklin pushed the lead to 61-55 with 6:41 remaining, two free throws were all the Gophers would manage for nearly three minutes. During a 10-0 run that followed those two freebies, the Gophers were in the emptiest part of a 3-of-16 shooting stretch from the field.
“We finally strung a couple of stops together,” Durham said, “and it led to our offense, and it led to that gap that we made at the end of the game.”
So when two desperate teams came off the floor Wednesday, it was the Hoosiers (12-9, 7-7 Big Ten) who claimed a pivotal home win. It was the Gophers (13-9, 6-9) who suffered a setback in their NCAA tournament pursuit.
It was a physical battle. At times, IU wasn’t exactly strong with the ball, surrendering 17 turnovers. But when it mattered most, the Hoosiers didn’t fold. They triumphed.
“Every team from here on out is going to try and test us, just because of the team they think we are,” IU forward Jerome Hunter said. “As long as they keep doing that, we’re just going to keep showing them that we are not going to be pushed around down there … we not soft over here.”
The Hoosiers, now winners of three of their last four games, have a chance to create some momentum with Saturday’s noon tilt with Michigan State. There are a few aspects of Wednesday’s win that can be built upon, too.
For one, IU’s star sophomore forward, Trayce Jackson-Davis, finally got off to a good start. After a five-game stretch where he failed to log a field goal in the first 10 minutes of those contests, Jackson-Davis went 3-of-4 in the first four-plus minutes Wednesday, eventually finishing with 20 points and 10 rebounds. Along with his production, the Hoosiers also had Durham (16), Hunter (16), Franklin (11), and Rob Phinisee (10) in double figures.
The turnover issues will have to be corrected, including four errors apiece for Durham and Phinisee. But the veteran backcourt duo was also a combined 9-of-13 from the floor, and Phinisee dished out six assists. There were more instances where Phinisee was aggressive off the dribble, as well, which has been sorely lacking this season.
“He’s been, in my opinion, worrying about offense too much, worrying about if his shot is going to go in, worrying about a turnover here or there,” IU coach Archie Miller said. “He starts to get dead on his feet. We don’t need Rob, to be honest with you, to do anything other than try like crazy, be a leader on defense, push our ball, make guys better, shoot when you’re open. I think tonight, he kept it simple.”
Minnesota was without one of its top scoring options, Gabe Kalscheur, who broke his hand in practice during the week. That made defending the Gophers somewhat of a simpler task.
Both Carr and Mashburn, however, were able to produce 19 points apiece out of the backcourt. They were able to cut into IU’s leads, especially when turnovers were feeding them added opportunities. In the first half, the Gophers held an 11-0 edge in points off turnovers, helping them take a 37-35 edge into halftime.
But when the Hoosiers took care of it, they had the stroke to capitalize. One especially hot player was Hunter, who connected for a career-high point total and drained two crucial 3s. Both came in the second half, as the Hoosiers pushed ahead 52-46.
Hunter, who missed two games this season due to a coach’s decision, seems to have responded to his benching.
“He’s playing like he’s practicing right now. He’s playing to win,” Miller said. “He’s got great confidence in his shot, he’s not hesitating. He’s playing through mistakes. And he’s giving us a little bit of physicality, a little bit of ruggedness, which is what we need.”
After IU’s six-point lead evaporated, Hunter and his teammates did the dirty work necessary to win. Minnesota finished the night at 40 percent shooting, including just 4-of-20 from 3-point range. It led to the Gophers’ eighth straight loss on the road this season, making them the only team in the Big Ten without a road win.
It was a win Minnesota could have used. But the Hoosiers needed it just as much. They seemed to want it just a bit more.
“I thought we made the little plays tonight that we needed, key plays, tie-ups on the floor,” Miller said. “Our physical toughness, our physical size, is in question. Our attitude and the way we approach things as a team is not. This team worked really hard coming into this game … and they are going to come back and be ready to go. That’s why this team has a chance to be good at the right time.”