With its NCAA Tournament fate still unclear, Indiana men’s basketball improved its chances of extending its season with a 84-79 victory against Minnesota on Sunday in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It was the Hoosiers’ second-straight victory following a five-game losing streak, and they now sit at a more favorable 18-10 with two regular season games remaining.
It seemed as though Indiana would have little trouble holding onto its 27-point lead in the second half, but the team’s concentration wavered in the final eight minutes. A 36-14 run by Minnesota in that span made matters more complicated, but Indiana shot well enough at the free-throw line in the closing minutes to hold on in the must-win game.
“I thought we were defending the threes (well), they just made some tough shots,” Indiana head coach Mike Woodson said postgame. “I’m pleased. I’ve never won here as a player, so I’m thanking these guys big time for fulfilling a dream.”
After posting a season-high 24 points on 100% shooting in the Hoosiers’ win against Maryland on Thursday, senior guard Xavier Johnson remained efficient and confident with the ball in his hands against the Golden Gophers.
The Hoosiers jumped out a 27-15 lead in the first 10 minutes of the first half Sunday largely through Johnson’s newfound scoring touch from distance. In the first half alone, Johnson scored 16 of his team-high 24 points with four 3-pointers, marking a season-high for a single game.
The Hoosiers found steady production from their entire bench unit — something that has not been common in recent games — and were able to involve senior forward Miller Kopp and senior guard Parker Stewart through effective set plays and screening.
The long-range duo combined for 13 points on over 50% shooting, while the Hoosiers’ bench outscored the Gophers’ second unit 23-13. Sophomore forward Jordan Geronimo led all scorers off the bench with 10 points and was one of four Hoosiers in double figures.
“The supporting cast was great,” Woodson said. “Everybody’s gotta contribute. (Geronimo and Tamar Bates) are still growing, that’s a part of college basketball (for) young players. ”
Although Indiana shot 50% or better from both field goal range and beyond the arc in the first half, its defense failed to adjust to the game’s quick pace. Minnesota, which is second-to-last in both the overall Big Ten standings and in scoring in the conference with 67.1 points per game, trailed by just 7 points at halftime.
The tight 40-33 affair at the break was then blown open by the Hoosiers to start the second half. The Hoosiers’ 25-7 run in the first 10 minutes out of the break was a complete diversion from their second-half tendencies on the road this season, where they had won just two of nine contests prior to Sunday’s matchup.
Johnson took a break from adding to his point tally to showcase his playmaking abilities in the second half. Five of his eight total assists came in the final 20 minutes, specifically during Indiana’s big run to open the second half, and he put himself on triple-double watch with six rebounds.
Then came a stale effort on both ends of the court from Indiana as Minnesota fed off its home-court advantage to keep its deficit at 10 points or less in the final three minutes. An alley-oop conversion by junior forward Race Thompson with 3:30 remaining marked Indiana’s last made field goal. Ten free-throw makes from then on — including six from Johnson — were enough for Indiana to go back to Bloomington with the win.
Thompson and junior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis, who combined for 22 points on 9-13 shooting and 14 rebounds, helped the Hoosiers gain a crucial 34-20 advantage in points in the paint through their aggressive play down low. It was their rebounding efforts, though, that helped the team avoid a complete collapse.
The Gophers and senior guard Payton Willis, who made seven 3-pointers, desperately forced up shots from deep to cut into the Hoosiers’ late lead, but the duo refused any second-chance opportunities on the glass.
A key absence that lasted seven games came to an end in Sunday’s matchup, as senior guard Rob Phinisee made his return to action after dealing with plantar fasciitis.
Phinisee shot 3-6 from the floor and knocked down a pair of 3-pointers in nine minutes, a fitting performance for the sixth man after leading Indiana with four 3-pointers in the first matchup against Minnesota on Jan. 9.
With a key part of Indiana’s rotation back and the team riding momentum at the right time, the Hoosiers will look to keep their strong run of play to end this season going when they face Rutgers in their home finale at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
“We know what’s staring in our face,” Woodson said. “We gotta win another game.”