CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — With her fuzzy blue and orange leg warmers bouncing with each step, Hannah walked onto the court at the State Farm Center during a first-half timeout. An Illinois manager handed her a basketball and the clock started.
She made a layup, then stepped back and drained a free throw. She hurried behind the 3-point line. Just one basket separated her and a $500 gift card.
Hannah’s first attempt rimmed out. Her second fell way short, and her third bounced off the back of the rim. On her fourth try, she took her time, bent at the knees and heaved.
It went in. The State Farm Center crowd lit up.
Everybody was hitting 3-pointers Sunday. IU and Illinois combined to make 23 long-distance shots in the Hoosiers’ 80-74 win. IU shot 11-of-25 from 3-point range.
“We came out moving the ball,” freshman guard James Blackmon Jr. said. “Everyone on the team was looking for each other, and when that happens guys can have big nights.”
The 3-point floodgates opened early and never closed.
Illinois guard Kendrick Nunn hit three consecutive long-distance shots to open the game, to which IU responded with four of its own. Guards Robert Johnson, Yogi Ferrell and Nick Zeisloft each connected to prevent Illinois from running away early.
Zeisloft, a junior, made 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions to take IU’s first lead of the game. He finished with 10 points.
“My teammates just found me open,” he said. “We all did our jobs there. We all got the defensive rebound and run out, spread it to the corner. I did my job too, just had to knock it down from there.”
Each of those Zeisloft 3-pointers came in transition, where the Hoosiers found most of their open looks Sunday. The absence of a true post rebounder has forced IU guards into bigger rebounding roles, which in turn quickens the transition between defense and offense.
IU’s small-ball fast breaks caused chaos in the Illinois defense, which often led to good shots.
“I thought Indiana’s transition offense was electric,” Illinois Coach John Groce said.
Zeisloft’s pair of 3-pointers kept IU in the game, but his most important shot came with less than three minutes to play.
With the Hoosiers down five points and the shot clock running out, Zeisloft flashed to the left wing. He ran around a ball screen and squared up to receive a pass from Ferrell. An Illini defender closed out as he rose for the shot.
He made it. Zeisloft’s third final 3-pointer of the game cut the lead to two points.
“It was a simple ball-screen shake action,” Zeisloft said. “Yogi hit me, perfect time, perfect spot, and I did my job, he did his job.”
Six Hoosiers connected from deep Sunday, including Blackmon, who had been in a slump, shooting just 27 percent from 3-point range in his last nine games.
Blackmon ended that by shooting 4-of-6 from behind the arc and tied Troy Williams with a team-high 21 points.
“It just really was the same with every game, I just wanted to stay confident with my shot,” Blackmon said. “Every time I miss, just keeping my composure because the next one’s going to go in.”
IU Coach Tom Crean has said multiple times this season that he’d like to see his team take more 3-pointers. It’s what the Hoosiers are built for and why he brought in five talented shooters last summer.
With the loss of their starting center, junior Hanner Mosquera-Perea, due to an injured right knee, that shooting becomes even more ?important, he said.
“We’re not a team that can just go and throw it down to the low post every time and demand the double-team,” he said. “We need that kind of balance.”