With everything going right for Indiana men’s basketball in the opening 12 minutes of its dominant 74-57 win against Penn State on Wednesday, it seemed as though Indiana’s fun would go uninterrupted.
In that span and for long stretches of the remainder of the night, gasps of joyful bewilderment from the fans in Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall came and went with junior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis’ breathtaking moves in the paint and Indiana’s barrage of 3-pointers.
Then, without a moment’s notice, an eerie silence, coupled with scattered murmurs, spread throughout the stands surrounding Branch McCracken Court at the 7:21 mark of the first half.
Senior guard Rob Phinisee, who in that moment stood just opposite of head coach Mike Woodson on Penn State’s 3-point line, could be seen grasping at his right ankle. He landed awkwardly attempting to grab a defensive rebound, to which Indiana fans let out a collective gasp of fear before play was halted.
The Hoosiers’ sixth man hobbled around for a few seconds, but ultimately couldn’t put any weight on the aforementioned foot. Sophomore guard Anthony Leal and junior guard Michael Shipp helped Phinisee into the tunnels under the arena, and the walk back out Hoosier fans were hoping for never came in the ensuing 27 minutes.
“(Phinisee) has to be evaluated probably sometime tomorrow, and somehow we've got to get Khristian (Lander) ready because he is not able to play either,” Woodson said. “We've just got to mix and match based on who we got in uniform.”
Even without Phinisee, Indiana remained focused and continued its strong play in the rematch of its Jan. 2 loss to Penn State. It was a complete turnaround from the first matchup of the season, as Indiana went 6-8 from beyond the arc in the first half and held Penn State to just 17 points on 16.6% shooting for a 29-point halftime lead that it had minimal trouble holding onto.
Even so, questions surrounding who would fill the backup point guard minutes lingered, as they have when senior guard Xavier Johnson and Phinisee have performed poorly in the past. Woodson said Lander, who has only appeared in eight games this season, would have played against Penn State if not for a physical setback.
Freshman guard Tamar Bates, who played more than 10 minutes just once in Indiana’s previous seven games, already made an early entrance off the bench six minutes prior to the play Phinisee went down on.
Indiana got out to a fast start before its bench unit subbed in, but Bates’ nine-minute stretch of playing time in the first half included a 22-5 run by Indiana to put the game well beyond reach. He scored all 6 of his total points on a pair of 3-pointers and provided an assist in that span, ultimately going 2-2 from the floor in 15 total minutes.
Phinisee also missed a three-game stretch earlier in the season against the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Jackson State University and Marshall University with a left leg injury. As the first man off the bench in his replacement, Bates averaged 24 minutes per game and 7.3 points per game. Bates also shot a combined 61.5% from the floor.
While there have also been questions surrounding Indiana’s starting lineup after slow starts against then-No. 4 Purdue and Michigan, Johnson has made a case in Indiana’s recent stretch of games to avoid being benched.
Johnson posted a combined 32 points, eight assists, 10 rebounds and averaged two steals to just one turnover in Indiana’s previous two games to help lead the team to the upset over Purdue and keep it afloat in the ensuing loss to Michigan.
He carried that production and efficiency over into Wednesday’s matchup, scoring a game-high 19 points with six assists and a perfect 3-3 mark from beyond the arc. In Indiana’s last three games, Johnson has shot 47.5% from the field and 55.5% from deep.
“The Big Ten forces you to really think about what you are doing, especially at the point guard spot,” Woodson said. “I think (Johnson) is starting to slow down and see things ahead of him, and he is making guys a little bit better around him.”
Johnson will look to keep his consistent run of play going into Indiana’s next matchup, a road game against Maryland on Saturday, which he said will be extra special.
“I do have a lot of family down there,” Johnson said. “It's only 45 minutes from being home. I know it's going to be a good environment overall. I'm still going to play with my team and go and win the game on the road.”