WASHINGTON, D.C. --- Sprawled out on the court, junior guard Josh Newkirk smiled.
After a hustle play that concluded with the closest referee signifying that it was indeed Hoosier ball, the mood on the court was downright bubbly for IU.
Grinning sophomore forward Juwan Morgan helped still-beaming Newkirk up, and laughing junior guard Robert Johnson stuck out his hand and awaited a high-five.
On Thursday, at the 5:10 mark of the second half, the happy Hoosiers led by 25. Although the team has lost seemingly insurmountable leads plenty of times in the 2016-17 season, this one seemed like it would stick.
Simply put, IU is a better team than Iowa from the starting five to the role players off the bench, which is what made the loss to the Hawkeyes less than a month ago so infuriating. It’s what made this entire season that we were forced to watch so maddening.
This team, at its worst, should be decent. Games against Wisconsin, Purdue, Michigan and even Nebraska during this Big Ten season felt lopsided and out-of-hand at times, a sensation that should not have occurred in the past year.
A first half in which the Hoosiers were the convincingly better team ended with the Hoosiers leading by only three. Mercifully, the second half continued the trend of IU playing better than Iowa. The only difference was that the scoreboard finally reflected it.
More than 50 points, 75-percent shooting from the 3-point line and a sense of urgency after halftime led to the best game that the Hoosiers have played in more than a month and perhaps the best half of basketball since the first half of the North Carolina victory.
The regular season ended with two out of three wins, but it felt more like an uplifting end to a funeral in which everyone had something nice to say rather than a resurrection.
Although it was only one game, at least there were glimpses of the team we were supposed to watch this year.
The squad finally hit its shots from behind the arc after an on-and-off stretch to end the season. The inconsistent freshmen from guard Devonte Green to center De’Ron Davis made legitimate contributions and played within their limits. Even the defense, rancid in the first half, showed a few sparks in the final 20 minutes.
Perhaps the best signifier of this team’s success in its first Big Ten Tournament game was the obvious jubilation from the players at the Verizon Center.
When asked about the moment that started this column, Newkirk immediately recollected the exact play.
“Just plays like that get us going,” he said. “Hustle plays like that, to see the hard work that we’ve been putting in pay off, it’s fun. Diving on the floor, getting loose rebounds, it was fun.”
After 40 hard minutes and everything that came before it, Newkirk was still smiling.
It’s a bit too late to truly matter with how the season has played out heading into the final stretch, but in a claustrophobic locker room after a suffocating season, it sure was nice to see someone happy.