Just the game IU needed.
After a second-half collapse against Maryland a week ago and before its matchup against No. 4 Kentucky this Saturday, IU beat Pittsburgh 74-64 in Madison Square Garden.
The team can credit the victory to a pair of players – sophomore guard Verdell Jones and freshman forward Christian Watford.
Jones and Watford combined for 38 of the team’s 74 points – more than half of the total score.
As they do every game, the chants of “defense” rang throughout the arena. But this time, IU (4-4) listened. They forced Pitt (7-2) to 15 turnovers and limited their own to 10, down from their season average of 17.5.
“We knew we squandered a great opportunity last week at home against Maryland because of our defense, because of our lack of ball pressure, because of our lack of sticking with our game plan,” IU coach Tom Crean said.
Jones and Watford can also take credit for IU’s defensive execution – the duo had all of the Hoosiers’ five blocks.
Crean said last week that it would take more communication from the players to create a victory – and on Tuesday, Watford and Jones stepped up.
“It was player-led tonight,” Crean said.
The two also shot 23 of the team’s 34 free throws – and had 18 of IU’s 25 makes from the line.
They weren’t entirely alone. At halftime Crean’s brother-in-law and Stanford football coach Jim Harbaugh gave the players a speech to inspire them.
Crean later said he has never seen the team so excited.
But it wasn’t just family connections that saved the Hoosiers.
It was the player’s leadership – not the coach’s – that was responsible for their performance.
“I think leadership coming into this game, I think me and Christian really stepped up into that leadership role,” Jones said.
After they said that execution was the team’s biggest weakness against the Terps, the Hoosiers carried their 33-29 halftime lead into a 10-point win.
“There was a defensive-minded team tonight,” Crean said. “And last Tuesday it was an offensive-minded team.”
The game wasn’t just a monumental one for the players, but for Crean.
He reached his 200th victory as a coach Tuesday.
“All of a sudden we get into last year, and I wasn’t sure 200 was ever going to come,” Crean said.
With the game on ESPN and against a Big East program, the team wanted to show what they could do.
“I really think we wanted this more than anything,” Jones said.
The team won’t have a lot of time to relish its victory. They’ll take on No. 4 Kentucky on Saturday at Assembly Hall – their first against a ranked team.
“Just as we learned a lot from Maryland,” Crean said, “we’ll learn a lot from Pitt.”
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