Indiana Daily Student

COLUMN: Johnson rises to the occasion to keep Indiana’s NCAA March Madness tournament hopes alive

Senior guard Xavier Johnson drives to the basket for a layup Feb. 24, 2022, at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. Johnson scored 24 points in the game against Minnesota on Feb. 27, 2022.
Senior guard Xavier Johnson drives to the basket for a layup Feb. 24, 2022, at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. Johnson scored 24 points in the game against Minnesota on Feb. 27, 2022.

Indiana men’s basketball didn’t hold back any punches against Minnesota Sunday night, putting on one of its best performances since its five-game losing streak to capture an 84-79 victory in Williams Arena. 

That is how you close out a basketball game. 

Without a doubt, Indiana picked up where it left off after closing out Maryland in its showdown last Thursday. A lot was riding on this game for Indiana, as it is one of the four teams on the bubble to participate in this year’s NCAA March Madness tournament. 

The availability of senior guard Rob Phinisee, who made his return against Minnesota after being out for a month with plantar fasciitis, was desperately needed for Indiana’s run to stay alive this season, especially considering how much his leadership plays a huge role in its success. Phinisee was essential on both ends of the floor when Indiana beat Minnesota in Bloomington earlier in the season, and he made similar contributions Sunday night. 

Indiana wasted no time putting Minnesota away, shooting 70% from the field in the first half and sharply tearing up Minnesota’s zone with intelligent and efficient ball movement to create open looks. The offensive success was a collective effort from everyone, especially senior guard Xavier Johnson distributing another jaw-dropping performance in The Barn. 

Related: [Johnson scores 24, Phinisee returns for Indiana men’s basketball in win over Minnesota]

Johnson dropped another 24-point scoring frenzy after doing so Thursday against Maryland, doing everything he could to keep Indiana’s tournament hopes alive. The starting point guard led first-half scoring with 16 points, hitting four 3-pointers to set a personal season-high record and mainly contributing to Indiana’s 40-33 lead at the break.

If Johnson can continue to deliver for Indiana like he has the last two games, there is no question Indiana will advance into the NCAA March Madness tournament. Phinisee and Johnson are vital pieces to Indiana’s success offensively and will need to remain in attack mode from this point moving forward. 

Indiana’s focus in the first half was unmatched, with Sunday being one of the best single-half performances of the season in Big Ten conference play. Indiana outrebounded Minnesota and outscored them in the paint to increase opportunities for the big-man duo of junior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis and senior forward Race Thompson. 

Jackson-Davis and Thompson combined for 22 points, 14 rebounds and five assists to contribute to the Hoosiers’ dominant performance. The Hoosiers shot 16-30 from the field and hit 6-12 3-pointers, receiving vital contributions from the starting backcourt of senior guards Parker Stewart and Miller Kopp. 

The Hoosiers intensified their advantage to further their momentum after halftime, considering they have been known for displaying lackadaisical second halves this season. Surprisingly, it was a different story for Indiana, showing no signs of decreased energy Sunday.  

Indiana knocked down 10 of its first 16 shots after halftime allowing Minnesota to make only two of 11 during the same stretch. Indiana's sharper, faster and dominating gameplay progressed to a 25-point lead, with Minnesota playing non-existent defense while failing to create offensively.

Related: [Indiana men’s basketball holds off late Minnesota comeback, keeps postseason hopes alive]

However, the old Hoosiers seemed to return when the team almost collapsed in the last six minutes of gameplay. Minnesota decreased its 20 point lead to a 3-point lead by draining 3-pointers against Indiana’s lagging defense. 

Minnesota senior guard Payton Wills started to heat up, hitting numerous clutch shots from beyond the arc down the stretch. Wills finished with a game-high 28 points on seven made 3-pointers. 

Indiana is still not off the hook in fighting for its spot. It will need to continue not to fold under pressure to make the history that Hoosiers fans have been waiting so long to witness. 

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