NEW YORK -- He had played all of 10 minutes, benched for much of the 2K Sports Classic championship game in foul trouble.
IU freshman forward Noah Vonleh had put up just a single shot through all but 0.7 seconds of IU’s dual with No. 18 Connecticut Friday evening at Madison Square Garden, but when he caught the out-of-bounds pass from sophomore guard Jeremy Hollowell, Vonleh had the chance to make his most important shot during his short Hoosier career.
After so many things had gone wrong, IU’s hopes were held in the large hands of one of the budding freshman in the NCAA, but as he had the rest of the game, the ugly truth that he had just five previous games under his belt continued to shine through.
Vonleh’s shot didn’t even get off before the buzzer sounded, as the Hoosiers fell in their first loss of the season.
IU Coach Tom Crean has never been one for moral victories, but after the game, he said he thought there was a lesson to be learned for his young guns in trying to grind out a win against a superior opponent on the road.
“They’ll understand more and more they can compete in any type of game as long as they don’t give in and get down on themselves,” Crean said. “When a team likes to score and has been over 100 points three out of five games, and they’ve got to grind it out, and they do all the way to the end…we don’t get the result, but we do grind it out.
“I like our upside.”
Vonleh’s lack of poise Friday wasn’t the only hurdle the Hoosiers had to scale to compete against the Huskies, though.
In fact, the Hoosiers had managed to weather numerous hits Friday night. The freshmen tandem of Vonleh and Troy Williams that had flourished Thursday night to combine for 40 of IU’s 102 points had produced only a single bucket.
Without Vonleh for much of the game and the Hoosiers struggling from the field – particularly in the first half – IU failed to pull down a bulk of rebounds on the offensive end and gave themselves few second and third chance opportunities.
In fact, on 12 occasions in the first half due to a string of turnovers, the Hoosiers didn’t even put up a shot.
“When you play great teams, the margin for error is so small,” Crean said. “When you’re not shooting the ball great, you cannot give up easy baskets or give the ball back like that, especially with the way we rebound. You can’t not have a chance to have a really good offensive possession by getting your second shot, and when you turn it over, you eliminate that.”
After IU grabbed an 8-6 lead with 14:18 left in the first half – already with Vonleh on the bench with two early fouls – the Hoosiers wouldn’t regain the lead until nearly the identical mark in the second half, falling behind by as many as six at halftime.
In the first 20 minutes, the starters shot 30 percent from the field and 40 percent from the free throw line. Similar to the semi-final game against Washington Thursday night, the Hoosiers suffered several intervals where shots just weren’t dropping.
Thursday, though, IU managed to grab an offensive rebound on more than 70 percent of their missed first half shots. With Vonleh on the bench for 13 of the first 20 minutes, the Hoosiers struggled to make up for his length in the post on offense and defense. IU pulled down boards on just 40 percent of the team’s misses, and with the addition of double-digit turnovers and a much slower and methodical opponent in UConn, the Hoosiers’ opportunities for shots were few.
“When you’re going against a team like UConn, you’re not going to get a lot of easy baskets,” Crean said. “You’ve got to go force the action. You’ve got to force it in a lot of different ways. I thought we got better in both games as the game went on.”
The Hoosiers pulled even at 24-all with a layup from sophomore guard Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell, but UConn’s senior floor general Shabazz Napier knocked down two 3-pointers – the second as the buzzer sounded – and IU went into the locker room with fewer than half their total 20 minutes into the game Thursday.
Even in watching Napier on film and preparing to try to contain him, IU Coach Tom Crean said the senior had the skills that mirrored those of an old NBA veteran.
“I told someone in the hall, ‘That’s a 12 or 13 year pro right there,” Crean said. “He deserves every bit of praise he’s going to get this year. There’s no doubt about that.
“I imagine it would be like in the NFL, trying to deal with a great running back like Barry Sanders or Adrian Peterson now. The change of direction at the drop of a hat. He can play with both hands, both feet. He’s explosive to the basket.
“He’s got the unbelievable ability to make big shots at crucial times.”
In the start of the second half, the Huskies’ lead would grow to as many as seven, but the Hoosiers stormed back, scoring eight points in just under two minutes to take the lead as a layup from senior forward Will Sheehey dropped through the net with 14:17 left in regulation.
After UConn scored the next two buckets, IU would go on a 17-8 run to gain the team’s largest lead of the game at 51-46 with 5:15 still on the clock.
From there, the lead would change seven times, both teams trading buckets while leading just by a point or two until Napier had the ball in his hands with a chance to close the Hoosiers out.
With 38 seconds left, Napier – who scored a game-high 27 points Friday night – suffered one of his few misses from 3-point range, but the Hoosiers couldn’t come up with the rebound.
Leading 59-58 and the shot clock off, Napier drove to the basket, with sophomore guard Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell lagging behind, Napier drove a shoulder in Ferrell’s chest, drawing the charge.
With 21 seconds left – as they had done all night – the Hoosiers still had a shot.
Ferrell brought the ball up the court, and he said after the game the plan was to use a high ball screen to open him up for a good look at a game-winning shot.
Instead, he was forced to put up an off-balance fade-away jumped that clanked off the back of the rim, shot straight up, and clanked out.
Hollowell positioned himself to pull down the rebound, but it slipped through his hands and right to a UConn player – but he slid out of bounds with the ball in his chest.
IU ball, 0.7 seconds left. One more shot.
After a chess match of strategic timeouts, Hollowell stood with the ball in his hands out of bounds, looking for either an open Ferrell at the 3-point line or a lob and post-up to Vonleh.
Ferrell had scored a team-high 19 points and was later named to the all-tournament team. Vonleh had committed four fouls and put up a single shot, but Vonleh was the open target as the seconds ticked away and Hollowell had to find an open man.
Vonleh caught the pass, pivoted and tried to put up a prayer, but his man was on him tight enough that he couldn’t get his shot off in time as the ball fell short of the net and fell to the ground.
“We feel like we played one of the best teams in the country tonight,” Crean said after the game.
After suffering the first loss of his collegiate career in November, Ferrell said that through all the adversity he and his teammates faced throughout the game Friday, the simple fact that they had a shot in the final possession showed some grit.
With true road tests in the Big Ten and the post season looming in March, he said the young Hoosier squad will have to battle through tough games, and hopefully in the future they’ll come out on top.
“We learned we’re never going to back down,” he said. “We were always there, still fighting, trying to get a lead. It shows our character and everything and how well we stayed together. This loss is going to help us down the road, so we’re just going to learn from it.”