Sophomore guard Anthony Leal came into Indiana men’s basketball’s game with Northern Kentucky University on Wednesday night averaging 3 points per game and had only played in seven of the team’s first 11 games.
However, Leal stepped into the starting lineup and became the first Indiana player from Bloomington to start a game since 2013. He replaced senior guard Parker Stewart, who didn’t play the entire first half.
Leal finished with 2 points, four rebounds and a steal in the team’s 79-61 win at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. His five assists tied for a team-high.
“It’s a blessing for sure,” Leal said. “When they first told me I was in shock. I just tried to focus on making the most of it and following the scout.”
Leal said he found out he’d be in the starting lineup on Monday, but he kept it a secret from his family.
“I couldn’t really stop smiling,” Leal said. “I had my sister make sure my grandparents and everybody were here just so they could experience it with me. It was special and hopefully the first of many.”
Stewart, who was averaging 8.2 points per game and led the Big Ten in 3-point shooting percentage, entered the game off the bench for the first time in the second half. He scored 3 points in eight minutes. After the game, head coach Mike Woodson said he was keeping the reason for Stewart’s absence in the first half in-house and wouldn’t address it further.
Because Woodson didn’t address his absence in the first half, it’s unclear whether Stewart will start moving forward, but Woodson said he feels good about every player who sets foot on the floor. Leal’s entry into the lineup was the first time Woodson made a change to the starting five all season.
“Parker didn't start tonight, Anthony started, I thought he played well,” Woodson said. “Somebody's got to start and somebody's got to come off the bench and somebody's got to finish the game. It's just a part of basketball”
Indiana’s front court led the way in Stewart’s absence. The pairing of junior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis and senior forward Race Thompson combined for 35 points on 16-20 shooting from the field and 10 rebounds. They both blocked two shots and had a steal each, and Jackson-Davis finished with four assists.
Jackson-Davis and Thompson lead the Hoosiers in scoring this season with 19.3 and 10.9 points per game, respectively. After the game, Jackson-Davis said Thompson is the team’s “glue guy” who brings everything together. Woodson said Thompson has improved and helped the team win this season.
“I can’t praise him enough,” Woodson said. “I’m pleased with what he’s done.”
Leal and senior guard Xavier Johnson combined for 10 points and 10 assists as Indiana’s starting back-court pair, and senior guard Rob Phinisee added 10 points off the bench. Woodson said Phinisee hasn’t been 100% because of a leg injury earlier in the season, but said he’s a “big piece of the puzzle” for Indiana moving forward.
Woodson will have a week to figure out the team’s starting lineup, if he hasn’t already, before the team’s next game at 7 p.m. Dec. 29 against the University of North Carolina at Asheville in Bloomington.