When sophomore Thomas Bryant returned this season at IU, these are the type of games that factored into his decision to come back.
The lasting image of IU’s Sweet Sixteen loss to North Carolina last season was of the center being held in the arms of and consoled by IU Coach Tom Crean.
This time when the two teams met, there wasn’t sadness for Bryant.
He anchored a defense that smothered No. 3 North Carolina and helped the Hoosiers pick up their second top-10 win in November, 76-67.
“It means a lot,” Bryant said. “It just means that us as a team just taking a step forward. We’re getting better each and every day and we went out there and proved it.”
IU led the entire game as the Hoosiers’ early energy proved to be the difference.
“This was one of those games where they left every bit of it out there, Crean said. “That’s why I was so proud of them.”
From the opening tip, the Hoosiers played with a lot of energy and at a frenetic pace.“We just wanted to bring the energy with us,” junior guard James Blackmon Jr. said. “So we just wanted to be collective, communicate because it was so loud. And once we brought that, the fans really helped us with their energy.”
IU wasn’t afraid of getting out and running against UNC, and it allowed IU guards to dominate the first half against UNC’s Joel Berry II and Nate Britt.
The trio of junior guards, Josh Newkirk, Blackmon and Rob Johnson had 24 points in the first half, helping IU to get up by 17 points at one point in the half.
Like it has all season, defense fed into IU’s offense, and the Hoosier defense was firing on all cylinders in the first half. IU held North Carolina without a field goal for nearly a seven-minute stretch, and the Tar Heels only shot 35.7 percent from the field in the half.
UNC would find its footing late in the first half offensively, but whenever it cut the lead to single digits, IU would respond decisively.
After halftime, the visitors began feeding Kennedy Meeks the ball. At first, IU had no answers. Meeks scored six points to begin the half but didn’t score after that burst.
IU’s offense started the half listless, but Bryant took things into his own hands, keeping IU’s offense afloat. Bryant showed off his guard-like moves, driving from the three-point line to finish around the rim and also draining a three from the right corner, both plays helping IU reestablish offensive rhythm.
Every single time UNC would threaten, IU had an answer. And each time it was a different player for the Hoosiers that stepped up. Whether it was Newkirk or sophomores OG Anunoby and Juwan Morgan, someone was always there to answer the bell.
UNC could never seem to really close the gap until a stretch midway through the second half when a 9-1 run put UNC within four with five minutes left to play.
However, IU took back control of the game after Blackmon hit his first shot of the second half, and it was all IU from there on out.
This was IU’s 21st straight home victory and the players felt the magnitude of the matchup before the game.
“You feel it before you even step on the floor for the pregame warm-ups” Bryant said. “You feel the intensity the day before. You just want to go out there and play your best in front of the greatest fans in college basketball.”
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