Juwan Morgan put the Hoosiers in a position to win Saturday afternoon, but he wasn't able to help the Hoosiers close out the victory.
IU's senior leader totaled 17 points, 12 rebounds and three assists during his 36 minutes on the Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall court against Northwestern.
But it was the final four minutes of the game, those without Morgan, when the Hoosiers secured a 68-66 win against Northwestern to start Big Ten Conference play.
"For our guys to find a way to win a game in December, a conference game that's fought that hard, is a good thing," IU Coach Archie Miller said. "We've got one in the bag and we're happy about it."
With Morgan out of the game and headed to the IU locker room after landing awkwardly on his right leg, Coach Archie Miller went with a lineup of freshman guards Rob Phinisee and Romeo Langford, sophomore forward Justin Smith and juniors forward De'Ron Davis and guard Devonte Green to close out what had been a back and forth game.
Those five players delivered, with four of them, all but Davis, scoring in that final stretch.
"We stuck with those guys and did a good job defensively," Miller said. "Romeo obviously had a couple big finishes for us in the last couple minutes, stepped up and made plays. And De'Ron was really important. I wish I would have played him a lot more. We've got to have him in different stretches and being able to finish it out. Just find a way."
Each team's largest lead of the game was a mere five points, and both the Hoosiers and Wildcats traded short scoring runs thanks to the play of their big men.
While Morgan did virtually everything for the Hoosiers on both ends of the court, senior center Dererk Pardon was doing the same for the Wildcats.
After Davis got in early foul trouble for IU, Pardon put on an offensive clinic in and around the basket. He finished Saturday's contest with 24 points on 11 of 15 shooting from the field, as his baskets almost exclusively came via dunks or layups.
"He's very skilled at finishing around the basket," Smith said. "He made a lot of quick moves that I feel like caught whoever was guarding him off guard a little bit. And the way that they played, they left everybody off the baseline, so it gives them a lot of room down low to be able to work and make a move and score the ball."
Neither Morgan, nor Davis or senior forward Evan Fitzner could find a way to limit Pardon's effectiveness.
Northwestern Coach Chris Collins said the plan was to attack Morgan with Pardon, just as IU planned to do the other way around.
"We knew they were going to go at him," Collins said. "But we felt we had to go back at him and keep him honest. He’s a four man playing five, so I mean we wanted to attack him the same way they were attacking our big man."
That's what made IU's late game defensive surge all the more telling, especially without Morgan.
Pardon didn't score in the final four minutes of the game, as IU's makeshift lineup tied the game with 2:06 left, took the lead with 39 seconds remaining via a Langford floater and never looked back.
Langford in particular was instrumental, as he, along with Davis, recorded blocks on Northwestern shot attempts near the rim in the closing minutes. The freshman also deflected a Northwestern pass off Northwestern senior forward Vic Law with just over 30 seconds remaining to give the Hoosiers possession with a two-point lead.
"They went in to try and to post me up and I just was able to get around the screen and get a hand on the ball," Langford said. "That was a big momentum change in the game."
IU then easily broke Northwestern's defensive trap to advance the ball up the court, finding a wide open Smith under the basket for a layup to score what would become the game's winning point.
A cloud hangs over the IU win though as Morgan's injury status remains a mystery for Tuesday night's game at Penn State, which marks IU's final conference game until the new year.
Miller said he needed to do a better job giving Morgan breaks to rest during Saturday's game, but it's fair to question whether or not IU would have had a chance to win had Morgan not played the entire game prior to his injury.
Regardless, Miller may be forced to give Morgan a break depending on how severe his injury is, and the Hoosiers may have to put together 40 minutes of basketball, instead of just four, without their talismanic captain.
"You feel really comfortable being able to play through him, because he's an unselfish player and he's also a very good one-on-one player," Miller said. "He takes the pressure off the other guys at times — able to play inside out, able to get the ball to the paint where you can collapse them. Juwan is multifaceted. He can do a lot."
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