Four days after suffering an upset loss to Eastern Washington, IU flirted with a second upset against University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
And had it not been for a 28-10 first-half run to build a cushion, Friday night could have been the sequel.
IU held off a second-half resurgence from the Spartans, sealing an 87-79 win at the free-throw line in the game’s closing minutes at Assembly Hall.
“Bottom line, we won this game,” IU Coach Tom Crean said.
The narrow victory came against a UNCG (1-5) team that is still yet to defeat a Division I opponent.
The injury-depleted Spartans played just eight players. Its leading scorer and rebounder, RJ White, got into foul trouble and managed to play just 14 minutes.
But still, the visitors gave IU a fight.
UNCG opted to attack the Hoosiers from long-range in the second half, shooting 14-of-23 from 3-point range, which allowed the Spartans to slowly chip away at the IU lead, which was as high as 22 points with 19:22 left in the second half.
The Spartans tightened the deficit to single digits in the final fourth of the game but were never able to string together a run strong enough to threaten IU’s lead before time had expired.
After the lead had gotten down to as little as six points with less than a minute remaining, IU closed the game out at the free-throw line where the Hoosiers shot ?22-of-29.
Freshman guard James Blackmon Jr. once again led the way for IU (5-1) with 24 points. He shot 9-of-17 from the floor and hauled in nine rebounds.
“I guess it was just in the moment,” Blackmon said of his 17 shots. “Being a guy that can score a bit, I just always try to stay aggressive. I guess tonight was a night to take more shots.”
Crean said IU’s main problem Friday night was his team’s inability to key in on UNCG’s tendencies that were looked at in scouting reports prepared by the coaching staff.
Even having studied the Spartans in practice, the Hoosiers weren’t as prepared as Crean wanted them to be on the defensive end.
“Their hearts are in the right place,” Crean said. “Minds need to be in an even clearer place when it comes to scouting report defense.”
The player that gave IU the most trouble was Nicholas Paulos, who scored 24 points off of 9-of-12 shooting. His 6-of-8 performance from beyond the arc made up the bulk of 14 made 3-pointers, the most of an IU opponent at Assembly Hall.
IU sophomore guard Collin Hartman said IU expected Paulos to have a good shooting night, but the Hoosiers were unable to contain him as he helped UNCG climb back into the game.
He said the key is getting better with scouting is communication. To him, it’s less physical and more a matter of being able to follow a strict game plan.
“It’s just knowing the tendencies of a player and when they’re going to go a certain way and what move is their go-to move,” Hartman said. “You can kind of guess and play a mental game with that...We just need to lock into the game plan and communicate and execute.”
In the aftermath of Monday’s loss to Eastern Washington, a loss to UNCG would have been an even rougher blow to an IU team that can’t afford non-conference losses at home when NCAA Tournament selection committees will be picking away at the Hoosiers résumé come March.
But at the end of the night, the game goes into the win column. And to Crean, that’s the important thing.
“I hate that term, ‘Work in progress,’” Crean said. “But I really don’t have a better one for where we’re at six games in.”