Indiana men’s basketball was on the brink of its most epic collapse this season.
While it blew a 22-point lead against Wisconsin and an 11-point lead against Iowa, Indiana almost one-upped its own worst second-half let down Sunday night. Indiana has made a habit of losing late leads this season, but it found a way to hold on against Minnesota thanks in large part to senior guard Xavier Johnson.
After trailing by 27 points with 8:21 to play, Minnesota went on a 36-12 scoring run to cut Indiana’s lead down to 3 points with five seconds left to play. Two seconds later, Minnesota sophomore forward Jamison Battle fouled Johnson and sent him to the free-throw line with three seconds left on the clock.
Johnson dominated in the first half, scoring 16 of his 24 points and putting up a season-high four made 3-pointers. However, he cooled off in the second half, shooting just 1-of-4 from the field, and he was 4-of-7 from the free-throw line when he stepped up for the final two. It was Minnesota’s 12th foul of the second half, so Johnson had two opportunities to close the game out.
He nailed both shots, giving Indiana an 84-79 win Sunday night at Williams Arena in Minneapolis.
Johnson’s 24 points were a team-high and 4 points behind the game-high set by Minnesota senior guard Payton WIllis, who led Minnesota’s second-half scoring run with 19 of his 28 points coming in the final 9:14 of the game. In addition to his scoring, Johnson finished with eight assists, six rebounds and just one turnover in 31 minutes of play.
“He’s playing well, he’s got confidence,” head coach Mike Woodson said after the game.
Johnson scored 24 points in Indiana’s last game as well, a win over Maryland which snapped the team’s five-game losing streak. Johnson has scored 10 or more points in seven of Indiana’s last 10 games and increased his scoring average from 9.5 to 11.5 points per game in that same 10-game span. Johnson’s eight assists were his second-highest total this season and his highest this month.
In addition to Johnson’s big game, backup point guard senior Rob Phinisee returned after missing the last month with plantar fasciitis. The Hoosiers went 2-5 across the seven games Phinisee missed, and Sunday night he scored 8 points on 3-of-6 shooting and 2-of-4 shooting from 3-point range in just 9 minutes.
Woodson said Phinisee was on a minutes restriction because he hadn’t practiced leading up to this game and didn’t want to risk further injury to his foot, but Woodson thought his contribution was solid and helped the team build its second-half lead.
“The 10 minutes that (Phinisee) played, it was solid as hell and it really helped us when we built the lead, he was a big part of that,” Woodson said.
In addition to his offense, Phinisee put together a solid effort on defense and helped Indiana create difficult looks for Minnesota’s 3-point shooters. Johnson said having Phinisee back allows him to be more aggressive on defense as well.
Phinisee averages Indiana’s third-most steals per game despite playing just 19.6 minutes per game, and he is third on the team in assists with 1.9 per game.
While his scoring average is just seventh on the team and he’s playing limited minutes because of his injury, Phinisee’s presence will be huge as Indiana makes its late-season push to make the NCAA Tournament. Woodson knows this, and he didn’t want to risk Phinisee overdoing it too early in his return.
“I need (Phinisee) for the long haul,” Woodson said. “The fact that he hadn’t really practiced, it would be crazy for me to come out here and try to give him 20 to 25 minutes. It just wouldn’t make sense.”
While Phinisee returned, sophomore guards Trey Galloway and Khristian Lander remained sidelined with injuries of their own. Galloway averages 6.1 points per game, but has played in just 15 games after breaking his wrist earlier this season. Lander averaged 3 points in his 12 appearances.
Johnson and Phinisee will look to continue to build together in Indiana’s next game against Rutgers at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Bloomington. Indiana improved to 9-9 in conference play with the win and sits two spots behind 10-8 Rutgers, which is seventh in the Big Ten standings.