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Friday, April 19
The Indiana Daily Student

sports men's basketball

Justin Smith makes key defensive plays in IU’s win over No. 9 Penn State

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Junior forward Justin Smith’s free throw with 64 seconds left in the game against Penn State on Sunday bounced off the rim and up into the air above the basket. The moments where the ball floated above the rim were met with groans from the Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall crowd. Then it came back down and fell through, to cheers. The lucky bounce seemed to reward the performance he made in the game’s final eight minutes. 

IU head coach Archie Miller needed someone to add energy when a 19-point lead collapsed away into a four-point deficit and the intensity and execution of a dominant first half disappeared. He needed someone to make stops to slow down what had quickly become a clicking Penn State offense. 

Smith did that. He came up with key rebounds and steals to flip a game spiraling toward disaster into a 68-60 win over No. 9 Penn State. It was IU’s fifth win over a ranked team and sixth Quadrant 1 win. 

"I thought in the final eight minutes of the game we made almost every single hard, hustle play,” Miller said. 

Penn State went on a 30-5 run and IU watched a 37-18 lead turn into a 42-41 deficit with 14:20 left in the game. When IU needed a response to a lead that dwindled away, Smith was the answer. 

In the final 8:27 of the game Smith had four rebounds, two steals and four free throws. He grabbed six of his eight rebounds in the second half.

“That's when Justin's good,” Miller said. “When Justin's good, Justin's activity level — and you can see his effort level, making plays others can't make, whether he just goes and gets a rebound nobody else can get, which we needed.”

Both of Smith's steals came in the final three minutes. His first steal came when he anticipated a pass into Penn State senior forward Mike Watkins with 2:55 to play. Smith read the lob and cut in front. That steal kept IU’s lead at two possessions. 

Smith made his second steal with 1:04 to play. He read an inbounds pass off the baseline and jumped in front again to intercept it. He was fouled immediately and went to the line, and made both free throws. IU was up by seven.

After IU had seemed to give Penn State a window to get back into the game, the little plays made by Smith played a crucial part in preserving such an important win. 

“If we just stop them as many times as possible, we don't have to worry about scoring,” Smith said. 

Smith only had two offensive rebounds. Only one came in that final stretch where he made so many clutch hustle plays. But his energy on the glass on the offensive end led to second chance opportunities and time running off the clock. His defensive rebounding finished off stops which played the most pivotal role in IU’s response. 

The stat line for Smith only featured nine points and eight rebounds. He had the two steals and added two blocks too. Each one was key. 

“If the ball doesn't come to me offensively, I've got to make my impact somewhere else,” Smith said. “And I'm okay with that. Where it was getting steals, getting rebounds, whatever is needed of me.”

Smith has been IU’s minutes leader this season, starting every game, though his performances have largely been quiet. Though he's been a constant in the lineup, the energy and focus he’s had in the second half hasn’t been consistent throughout the season. 

So that’s why he turned off his social media notifications coming into this season. He needed to block out any outside criticism. When losses began to pile up and panic trickled in from fans Smith tried his best to ignore it, because when he is focused and energized he can make all the little plays the Hoosiers might not have won without. 

“Sometimes Justin wants the game to go a certain way and it doesn't,” Miller said. “And it takes him a minute. But when the energy was up and we needed the plays to be made, I thought last eight minutes he stepped up, did a great job.”

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