As the final buzzer echoed through Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, the blares from the Big Red Basketball Band’s instruments were drowned out by a stampede of Hoosier fans storming the court. Lost in the middle of it all was Indiana men’s basketball senior guard Rob Phinisee.
He controlled his sheer elation just for a moment as he searched frantically for his teammates before the cream and crimson closed in on him. Senior guard Xavier Johnson and junior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis located Indiana’s sixth man just in time to lift him to safety as high as they could, the group relishing in Indiana’s nine-loss streak-snapping, upset win over in-state rival No. 4 Purdue on Thursday night.
“That’s a moment I won’t ever forget,” Phinisee said. “These fans have supported me through everything.”
It was Phinisee’s rightful throne.
Moments before, with 17 ticks on the clock and Indiana trailing 65-63, Phinisee caught an inbound pass between the right wing and corner. Without any hesitation, Phinisee hoisted a 3-pointer as he faded toward the courtside seats and just out of the grasp of Purdue senior guard Sasha Stefanovic, who stands four inches taller.
Leading up to the shot, Phinisee was held scoreless through the second half and missed a similar shot on the opposite wing four seconds earlier. When the ensuing rebound was tipped out of bounds in Indiana’s favor, “Big Shot Rob” had a chance at redemption.
“He said, ‘Hey, give me the ball,’” head coach Mike Woodson said about the play call made in Indiana’s huddle. “It worked.”
His shot swooshed through the northside basket, and Assembly Hall knew no silence from then on. Purdue sophomore guard Jaden Ivey, who just willed his team back with a 19-point second-half performance, couldn’t get his final two attempts to fall through.
The upset was complete. The bragging rights were finally back on the side of Indiana after over five years without a win over its black-and-gold foe.
With the stands emptied and the court packed, Phinisee was the king of Indiana in that moment. He etched his name in program history with one of its most impactful, memorable shots since Christian Watford’s famous buzzer-beater against the University of Kentucky on the same court in 2011.
“That play, we actually put it in before shootaround,” Phinisee said. “I was what, 0-6 (against Purdue)? Needed that one bad.”
In the mid-week media availability leading up to Thursday’s matchup, Woodson spoke about his relationship with Phinisee and how he’s pushed the guard to become a much more confident, better version of himself.
“I'm just trying to get him to forget what happened in the past,” Woodson said. “You're playing for Coach Woodson now, and Coach Woodson loves you. I'm saying it's okay to go do your thing, because I see something maybe in him that he probably doesn't see in himself.”
Phinisee has started to thrive in his bench role behind Johnson, and in Indiana’s most recent home game against Minnesota on Jan. 9, he showed out with what was then a season-best 13-point performance with four 3-pointers. That same self-belief carried over against Indiana’s highest-ranked opponent of the season.
After checking in for the first time at the 12:43 mark, Phinisee went on a personal 13-point scoring run in under three minutes to cut Indiana’s deficit from 8 points to 1 point. By halftime, he led all scorers with 17 points. It was his hustle on defense, including four steals and one block, which gave him the confidence to take the chances that came to him as he controlled the tempo of Indiana’s offense.
In six career games against Purdue, tied for most of any active player between the rivals and the most of any active Indiana player by two games, Phinisee averaged just 6.5 points per game and shot 31.9% from the field.
That all changed Thursday after scoring a career-high 20 points and knocking down another four 3-pointers, the final of which sent Assembly Hall into a frenzy. Phinisee led Indiana to a statement victory all while Jackson-Davis, who got into foul trouble early and was still dealing with a back injury he suffered in Monday’s win over Nebraska, was only on the court for limited minutes.
"Rob and I had a beautiful conversation before the game,” Woodson said. “It was nice to see how he performed. He was on a mission. He's had his ups and downs. I told him tonight no matter what anyone says, 'I'll be in your corner.'"
Johnson shared Phinisee’s joy after the game, and the two exchanged laughs when speaking about the commotion on the court directly following the win.
“We all came out and competed,” Johnson said. “I’m at a loss of words right now with how happy I am.”