It was a sluggish, drawn-out game marred by 59 combined free throw attempts and 30 combined turnovers, so IU Coach Archie Miller surely wanted to put things away as soon as possible.
Playing against an Illinois team that beat IU three weeks ago but still sat at the bottom of the Big Ten standings, the Hoosiers pushed out to several double-digit leads Wednesday night. But each time they did, the Illini came clawing back with a flurry of forced turnovers to pull closer.
By the time things were finished and the Hoosiers had hit their share of shots, IU won 78-68 in a game that took nearly two and a half hours thanks to a second-half free-throw parade. Miller looked fatigued as he spoke after the game and praised his team for handling Illinois’ constant pressure.
“Every time that you’re going to play against Illinois, I think you’re going to get a chance to see one of the harder playing teams,” Miller said. “There’s no quit in any of their guys. They just keep coming at you.”
Illinois had its first chance to roll over midway through the first half, when IU fought back from an early deficit to go on a 14-0 run and take a 12-point lead. Illinois Coach Brad Underwood had to call two timeouts during the same run, but he got his team under control enough to keep the Illini within 10 points at halftime.
IU freshmen Justin Smith and Al Durham, who both scored in double figures off the bench, had 13 of IU’s 35 points at halftime. When the Hoosiers came out after the break, the Illini looked poised to stage a comeback like they did at home against IU in January.
With a mix of traps and full-court pressure, Illinois forced 10 turnovers in the second half. IU was hitting shots when it got them, but that wasn’t happening often in the first 10 minutes after the break. The Illini cut the deficit to 51-49 with 12:26 left in the game, and it took a timeout for the Hoosiers to respond and build on their lead.
“It’s kind of feast or famine,” Miller said of going against the Illinois defense. “You’re either going to get a layup or a good look, or you’re going to turn it over most of the time.”
As IU tried to stretch its lead back out to double digits, the pace of play slowed considerably thanks to a fouling frenzy. In the second half alone, IU and Illinois each attempted 24 free throws, making 18 and 16 respectively.
Senior guard Josh Newkirk, who delivered 11 points on 4-6 shooting off the bench, said patience was key in staying composed through a physical and sloppy end to the game.
“Just staying poised, making the right reads and taking care of the ball,” Newkirk said. “Knowing that you’re going to get hit, that you’re going to get fouled, and being prepared for that.”
Solid bench play, in addition to typical contributions from junior forward Juwan Morgan – 14 points, 10 rebounds, five blocks and four steals – and senior guard Robert Johnson – 14 points and four assists – gave IU depth that Illinois couldn’t match.
The victory, IU’s third in a row, moved the Hoosiers to 15-12 overall and 8-7 in the Big Ten. They’re alone in seventh place in the conference standings and clinched a first round bye in the Big Ten Tournament with the win. A road game at Iowa is waiting Saturday, and Miller loves his team’s attitude.
“We’re very pleased just to be able to be in a situation right now as a staff and as a team where we actually enjoy being around one another,” Miller said. “Sometimes at this time of the season, you get tuned out. But I think that’s not the case here.”
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