Sunday afternoon presented a chance for IU men’s basketball to celebrate its five seniors for what they’ve brought to the program in their time on the team.
But the 89-73 win over Rutgers also served as a reminder of how near the end is for those five, and it emphasized the importance of the upcoming Big Ten Tournament in order to keep the team's NCAA hopes alive.
“I think all the guys, they are not really taking any days lightly,” senior forward Juwan Morgan said. “Any day would be, could be the last day. We never know. That's exactly how we're playing.”
In what could be Morgan’s last game inside Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, he showed the fans why they give him a loud ovation each team he’s introduced pregame.
Rutgers got out to a 5-0 lead within the first two minutes to put IU in an early deficit. Led by Morgan, the Hoosiers – 17-14 overall and 8-12 in the Big Ten – went on a 20-5 run to give itself a lead that would not slip away.
With 13 minutes to play in the first half, Morgan had already scored 10 points, which matched Rutgers' total at the time.
He finished the afternoon with 25 hard-earned points on 11-for-13 shooting, along with seven rebounds and numerous standing ovations from the crowd.
“You know, seniors do one of two things,” IU Coach Archie Miller said. “They either run away because it's too hard and it's on them, or they just fight, and Juwan is a fighter. Fighters fight.”
Morgan did struggle with foul trouble, which meant that IU needed to find ways to preserve an early lead with him on the bench.
Just as the team has seen throughout its four-game winning streak, the depth of the roster stepped up on Sunday. Eight Hoosiers scored, with freshman guard Romeo Langford scoring 20 points and junior guard Devonte Green scoring 16.
“I think the one thing that feels good as a staff right now is we're not so restricted with our lineup anymore,” Miller said. “That's helped us being able to say, ‘Hey, this guy is not playing as well' or there's foul trouble and not being so insecure about your bench.”
For the third straight game, Green, a player who has struggled with consistency, scored in double figures while combining for just two turnovers in that span.
During the past three games, Green has shot 14-for-21 from the floor while showing an ability to push the tempo in IU’s offense.
“He's just really taken an approach by himself, really demanding from himself to make simple plays,” Morgan said. “I think he's really seeing the court in a better vision and just making all the right plays. He's not trying to do anything that he doesn't do in practice and I think you're seeing the product of that on the court.”
IU's 21-point loss Feb. 16 at Minnesota showed a team that had little fight left in hopes of resurrecting any NCAA Tournament hopes, but two tight losses to ranked Purdue and Iowa teams combined with the recent winning streak have given IU a shot at postseason play.
“I think one of the big things is we picked up our intensity in practice,” graduate transfer Evan Fitzner said. “Every day we're competing right now, and when you do that, the game seems easy. So I think that's been a big thing. I think we felt not like our backs were against the wall a little bit, and we responded the right way.”
The Big Ten Tournament in Chicago is up next for the Hoosiers as they will play Thursday thanks to Sunday’s win clinching them a first-round bye.
“We haven't been able to talk about anything but survival for a long time, and that's sort of why we're here,” Miller said. “Because we've kind of said there really isn't anything other than just do it. You have to do it the right way, and we have a good attitude right now.”
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