Against the full court press, junior forward Justin Smith didn’t have a hard time finding space. He controlled the boards against a Portland State University front that couldn’t match his size.
And he sparked IU men’s basketball to pull away in the first half.
The Portland State defense dared Smith to shoot. He stood at the apex of the 3-point arc with no defender near him. Smith had already thrown down two emphatic dunks in the first half.
He chose to have another.
Smith drove toward the basket, rising up inside the paint and over a Vikings defender choosing to be in his way.
He leaped over the defender, reaching the ball back over his head and slamming it down with two hands.
IU had struggled to separate from a Portland State team that bounced back every time it looked like IU had knocked it down.
Smith’s dunk was the blow IU was searching for. It sparked a late first half burst as IU pulled away for the first time in a 85-74 win.
The dunk gave IU an eight-point lead, and two makes from three for redshirt-freshman forward Jerome Hunter, the first of his college career, gave IU the momentum heading into the locker room.
Or at least it looked like that would be enough.
Portland State crawled back into it. The momentum Smith’s dunk had created and pushed IU to a 16-point lead dissipated as the lead shrunk back down to six.
As the momentum flipped, a technical foul called on Portland State gave IU one final boost, the last one it needed to put the game away.
Junior guard Al Durham swished both free throws and on the ensuing possession drew an and-1 call. He made the free throw.
It was a personal 5-0 run before Portland State touched the ball.
A Smith dunk, his fifth of the game, was the final exclamation point.
Durham led IU with 18 points, but it was the play of big men like Smith that were at the core of a win IU had to fight harder than the betting odds and rankings would have indicated.
IU finished with a 41-24 rebounding edge. Of those, 16 were offensive rebounds.
Freshman forward Trayce Jackson-Davis led IU with 10 rebounds as part of his double-double, the first of his college career.
“I think in practice, just my teammates always pushing me to rebound,” Jackson-Davis said. “We do a lot of rebounding drills. I thought that was big coming into the game.”
Ten of IU’s 16 offensive rebounds are attributed to two players, Smith and sophomore forward Race Thompson. Thompson was key in the first half in his role off the bench. His physicality led to many of IU’s second chance points, of which IU had 23, as it tried to find breathing room.
Thompson finished with 10 points to go along with his nine rebounds overall. Smith was IU’s second leading scorer and added eight rebounds.
“Race in his 16 and a half minutes was very impactful,” IU head coach Miller said. “Offensive rebounding, huge. He had five in 16 minutes. He was able to grab nine rebounds in 16 minutes, which was good. Some of his baskets we needed because we were playing ugly for most of the game offensively.”
Miller stressed how important the ability to rebound is for his team. With the amount of depth and size he has among his group of big men, Miller knows that has to be a strength of his team.
“It's a big focus for this team to win the rebounding battle against anybody you play, especially the teams we're going to play, conference play,” Miller said. “Our rebounding has to be a strength. Our depth has to be able to help that.”
It was the key on an afternoon where the defense didn’t meet Miller’s standards. The ability to control the glass saved IU from it being a closer game than it already was.
“To be honest with you, first week, if we don't get our defense going in another direction here, we're going to experience some really hard moments in games,” Miller said. “We can't get stops.”
Miller said he needs the defense to be fixed quickly. IU was fine facing opponents like Western Illinois University and Portland State, but it might be too much to overcome once Big Ten play arrives.
Come Tuesday night’s game against the University of North Alabama, another part of IU’s weak nonconference schedule, that’s where it will be focused on getting better.