IU defeats first ranked opponent in Crean era
By Ryan Winn
Junior forward Tom Pritchard tapped in a loose ball with 38 seconds remaining, serving as the game-winning basket in a 52-49 thriller Thursday against No. 20 Illinois in Assembly Hall.
He had the chance to pull down the rebound and go up strong, but at least one teammate preferred the route Pritchard chose.
“I was like, ‘Please, just tip it in, Tom. Don’t come down with it, because they’re going to foul you, bro,’” senior guard Jeremiah Rivers said. “That’s what I was thinking. I was like, ‘Please tip it in, T-Bone.’”
IU was trailing by one with 1:19 remaining when sophomore forward Christian Watford blocked a Mike Tisdale lay-up attempt. It was then Watford who kept the ball alive looking for the go-ahead basket, and his miss set up Pritchard with the golden opportunity.
“Everybody crashed the rebounds,” Pritchard said of the play. “I saw Christian [Watford] running in there, and the middle opened up. I was there for the tip-in, and it went in.”
On the Fighting Illini’s next possession, Tisdale threw the ball away and forced Illinois to foul. Sophomore guard Jordan Hulls hit both free throw attempts, and the Hoosiers stopped a pair of Illinois 3-point attempts.
But if it weren’t for Hulls’ clutch shooting from just a few feet behind the charity stripe, he might not have been in the position to push the lead in the first place.
Hulls, who finished with a game-high 18 points, nailed a 3-pointer with 7:38 to push IU up by two, its first lead in the second half. He added cushion with another long-range bucket at the 5:04 mark, putting IU up by four points.
Hulls said bringing the crowd to deafening decibel levels after his clutch shots was a great feeling, but he was more concerned about replicating the high-intensity on the opposite end.
“You’ve got to go back down and play some defense,” he said. “That’s something that we were really wanting to do — get good stops and consecutive stops in a row, and we were able to do that.”
Illinois built a two-point first-half lead backboned by nine second-chance points off of 11 offensive rebounds. The Hoosiers locked down in the second half, holding the Illini to just five offensive rebounds and one second-chance point to close the game.
The game featured 14 lead changes and three ties, but the second half started with a thud for both sides.
Neither team scored for nearly five and a half minutes to open the half, and IU didn’t have a field goal until the 12:45 mark.
But the Hoosiers mounted series of defensive stops, which Crean said was a must for IU to pull out a victory.
“Forty minutes can be broken down a lot of different ways. The most obvious way is to break it down by halves,” he said. “We have not been as good defensively. We put people on the line too much … Tonight that wasn’t the case. It’s a real credit to the way our guys moved their feet, the way they switched defenses.
“And they did it with conviction, they did it with communication, and they did it with execution and effort.”
The Hoosiers have been in similar close-game positions both last season with Illinois and this season with other opponents.
Last year, the Hoosiers blew a 13-point halftime lead and lost at the buzzer to the Illini, and they were 0-5 in games decided by less than 10 points this year.
Crean credited breaking past the close-loss barrier to a raucous crowd of 16,000, and he hopes to give them more to cheer about when the Hoosiers return from a road game with Michigan State on Sunday.
“I know a few years back, everyone was used to these wins on a regular basis. And we’ll get back to it,” he said. “But tonight, to get it like this, says a lot. I’m really proud of the way our fans have stayed behind us, and the way that they support us and the way that they were there tonight. And I know our players are too.”
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