For the first 30 minutes, his team had it. Then it disappeared.
Those issues down the stretch — including a nine-minute scoring drought — contributed to the Hoosiers’ 81-62 loss to the Wildcats at Rupp Arena.
“We have the physical talent, we have the players, we have the depth on the bench, we have the coach’s game plan,” Rivers said. “But with all that said, it’s really just the mental toughness to be able to finish off the games.”
That was not the case early on.
For the first half and early part of the second half, the Hoosiers (7-2) appeared even with the Wildcats (7-2).
Sophomore forward Christian Watford and sophomore guard Jordan Hulls were productive shooting the ball, while tough defense forced the Wildcats to take contested shots.
IU went into halftime trailing by just one point, 32-31. The Hoosiers eventually took a 57-56 lead after Watford hit a 3-pointer with 9:42 remaining in the game.
But any momentum gained in that sequence subsided as Kentucky responded with an 8-0 run. It closed with a 25-5 stretch to put the Hoosiers away for good.
“It kind of went fast on us,” Watford said. “I look down, we were close, and then all of a sudden they make a run. The game of basketball is all about runs, and we didn’t do anything to weather their storm.”
Since Watford’s basket, the IU offense had very little cohesion.
The Hoosiers could not penetrate Kentucky’s zone as easily as before, and as a result, they took poor shots. Before a Rivers’ layup with 38 seconds remaining, IU was 0-for-10 from the field during that time frame.
“If you are going to win, you got to be able to make shots,” IU coach Tom Crean said. “For most of this game, we did. And then in the end, we didn’t, and they did. That was so much of the difference.”
The Hoosiers also looked gassed toward the end of the game, while the Wildcats did not. This was especially evident on the glass, as Kentucky outrebounded IU 20-7 in the final 9:42 of the second half.
That aggressiveness helped give the Wildcats a 21-4 advantage on second-chance points for the game.
Even though his team did not earn the victory, Watford said a game such as this will benefit his squad long-term.
“Playing against great players out there, it’s only going to help us,” he said. “We’re looking forward to going back to Bloomington and getting back to work.”
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