Indiana men’s basketball remained unbeaten at home this season and opened Big Ten play with a 68-55 victory over Nebraska on Saturday at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. Indiana moved to 7-1 overall with the win.
“Our goal this year is to not lose at home and then figure it out on the road,” Indiana head coach Mike Woodson said in a press conference following the game.
The double-overtime loss Indiana suffered to Syracuse University earlier in the week showed its toll on the players in the opening 10 minutes. On Indiana’s first possession after winning the opening tip, junior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis was called for a travel, the first of 11 Indiana turnovers in the first half.
The Hoosiers’ starting unit struggled to find any rhythm out of the gate due to a lack of movement on offense. At the halfway point of the first half, the Hoosiers found themselves in an early 10-point hole.
Woodson looked to his bench unit, which had accounted for only 18 of Indiana’s 200 points in its previous two games combined, to redeem itself and provide a much-needed spark for what Woodson called a flat start to the game.
The Hoosiers’ depth prevailed over the Cornhuskers, closing out the first half on a 20-6 run and putting the Hoosiers ahead 26-22.
A majority of Indiana’s 18 first-half bench points were created through freshman guard Tamar Bates’s shooting and sophomore guard Anthony Leal’s playmaking. Bates scored 11 of his 13 points in the first half on 3-5 shooting from long range, while Leal sparked the comeback with a 3-pointer and dished out a pair of assists.
“It’s just staying confident and believing in myself,” Bates said. “The fact that my teammates have that belief in me to keep swinging it to me, that makes me want to make the shot.”
Woodson said his bench players’ preparation in practice was a key reason for their bounce back performances that provided offense in the low-scoring contest. Senior forward Race Thompson had high praise for Indiana’s bench and said it could start on multiple Big Ten teams.
“The second unit pushes the first unit,” Woodson said. “When we’ve had scrimmages, there’s times the second unit has come away with the win. That’s being competitive, where they’re not succumbing all the time to the first unit.”
Indiana’s starters matched the hustle of the bench unit as soon as the second half began, scoring 34 of its 42 points in the closing 20 minutes.
Thompson’s 11 points and 11 rebounds — his second consecutive and third total double-double of the season — helped the Hoosiers maintain a lead in the closing stages. During several possessions in the second half, Thompson fought for offensive rebounds and helped the Hoosiers get important second chance scoring opportunities, including a putback dunk.
“He’s been playing that way all season for us,” Woodson said about Thompson. “They were playing small ball so we tried to take advantage of that. You’ve got to exploit it.”
Senior guard Parker Stewart followed up on his six 3-pointers against Syracuse with another efficient scoring performance, shooting 3-6 from behind the arc. Stewart’s accuracy has pushed Indiana to a 43.8% mark from deep over the last five games and is personally shooting a Big Ten-best 47.7% from long range this season.
In preparation for Saturday’s matchup, Woodson stressed the importance of denying Nebraska’s guards room to drive downhill and forcing them to shoot contested jump shots. Indiana’s defensive strategy was successful, as Nebraska, which was ranked 317th out of 350 Division I schools in 3-point percentage, shot just 22.7% from deep.
Woodson said he has confidence in the Hoosiers’ ability to guard opposing teams man-to-man and said their defense will continue to set itself up that way going forward.
Indiana will have a short turnaround continuing Big Ten play against Wisconsin at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Madison, Wisconsin.