With a grimace and a bit of a hobble, sophomore guard Rob Phinisee walked to the free throw line. He was fouled and hit on his side as he drove to the basket with just under 10 minutes to play in the second half.
Still in pain, he stepped up to the free throw line and drained them both, and he stayed in the game. He was back playing at full speed again within seconds. He isn’t fully healthy yet. He’s finally just getting back to playing without restrictions in practice recovering from a lower abdominal injury. In the first two games he played more minutes than in practice.
But Phinisee is getting close to being back at his best. The steady rhythm that made him such a key piece as a freshman, playing with a maturity beyond his years, is beginning to return.
When IU was struggling on offense in the first half, Phinisee gave it a spark. When IU couldn’t get stops on defense, or when it couldn’t pull away from an inferior opponent, again, it was Phinisee that began to create momentum. Phinisee’s steps closer to being at 100% were clear as IU pulled away to win 95-61 against University of North Alabama.
IU hadn’t made a shot from the field when Phinisee first came in.
Its only points were from the free throw line, where IU made each of its first six attempts.
Phinisee hadn’t started any of IU’s first three games as he has been working back from his injury.
“Do I think he’s 100%, no,” IU head coach Archie Miller said. “I don’t think he has his rhythm. I think a month long of not practicing doesn’t just allow you to get out there. I do think hopefully he continues to build day by day and get better and better.”
He no longer has many restrictions in practice, but after a month of barely playing, his comfort and strength on the floor is getting closer to where it was a year ago, a season where he started 29 of 32 games played.
The sophomore got up from his kneeled position in front of the scorers table after the under-16 timeout in the first half, came in the game, and on his first possession drove to the basket and calmly finished a lay-up off the glass. Within seconds, Phinisee had given IU its best offensive possession of the night so far.
Phinisee immediately stepped in and was IU’s most reliable player on both ends of the floor. He scored 10 points including two threes in the first half and continued to show why he’s been one of the only players Miller has relied on at the defensive end.
He rarely went out for the rest of the first half, and he went on to start the second. Even if his health isn’t totally there, Miller needed Phinisee on the floor. He was the steadiest IU player in a first half that was quite the opposite.
As IU finally went on a run at the end of the first half, finally escaping the grasp of a North Alabama team that wouldn’t let go throughout the first half, it was Phinisee who was the catalyst.
Phinisee played the second most minutes for IU with 22. He finished with 13 points, second to freshman forward Trayce Jackson-Davis’ 20, six assists and a +19 rating, second best on the team.
He’s not the loudest guy on the floor, nor the most energetic. He’s stoic, the emotion and focus on his face unchanged no matter what’s happening in front of him. It was in large contrast to his coach.
Miller was without his suit jacket when he returned to the floor to start the second half. His frustration was evident.
“The big picture defensively we’re not there, I thought we made some strides leading into the game,” Miller said. “But perimeter defense, defending the three point line, being able to execute just with great intensity, it wasn’t there.”
Phinisee’s play on the defensive end in the second half began to change that. His defensive play began to disseminate to his teammates. IU allowed just 25 points in the second half after 40 in the first. It forced 22 turnovers.
Neither Phinisee nor defense is where Miller needs them to be yet, but both are getting closer.