They couldn’t go through this again.
Those scattered throughout Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall let out collective moans and groans as Indiana men’s basketball squandered a 10-point lead in the closing stages of the first half in Thursday night’s matchup against Maryland. Frustration set in once junior guard Hakim Hart nailed a 3-pointer on Maryland’s first possession of the second half to even the score.
This feeling had not only snowballed for Hoosier fans over Indiana’s five-game skid in Big Ten play, but it has become especially commonplace during the team’s six-year period without an NCAA Tournament appearance. What should’ve been a straightforward win against the third-to-last place team Indiana beat Jan. 29 turned into a contest too close for the fans’ liking. Another collapse was inevitable. Or so they thought.
Enter senior guard Xavier Johnson.
With one dunk, Johnson sparked a 12-plus minute run that saw Indiana make 13 consecutive field goals. Johnson’s playmaking paired with junior forward Race Thompson’s poise below the rim accounted for 10 of those 13 field goals, and such a momentum swing was too powerful to contain as the Hoosiers rolled their way to a 74-64 victory.
“When you get X going, that's the head of a snake, for real,” Thompson said. “You might say Trayce (Jackson-Davis) is the head of the snake, but it's really X. We really go as he goes because he gets everybody involved.”
Maybe it’s the fact Johnson grew up less than an hour away from College Park, Maryland, that propelled him to dish out a season-high nine assists to pair with 8 points when Indiana visited and left his home state with a win last month.
Maybe it’s the simpler game planning a rematch against an inferior opponent provides. With hindsight and a second chance, the weaknesses surely must be easier to exploit.
But maybe, it’s Johnson’s patience and dedication to improvement that led to his best performance as a Hoosier on a night his production was desperately required to keep Indiana’s postseason hopes alive.
With a combined 13-49 mark from the field over the Hoosiers’ losing streak, Johnson couldn’t seem to figure out the right balance between pace and aggression when running the team’s offense. He seemed doomed to be a non-factor again Thursday after sitting the final 13 minutes of the first half with two fouls.
Then came a mature and focused response.
“I see what a lot of people say (on social media),” Johnson said. “I’m an emotional player. I know it doesn’t really matter, but at the end of the day I’m gonna read it. It’s a matter of how you use it.”
After a 4-point first half, Johnson exploded for 20 in the second half for a season-high, and had a perfect 7-7 shooting performance from the field. When left open behind the arc, Johnson made the most of the time he was given and drained all of the three 3-pointers he took. When the opportunity to attack the lane presented itself, he finished with composure or made the right pass at the final moment en route to his six assists on the night.
Johnson also had the chance to go perfect at the free-throw line, but missed one of his final attempts in the closing minutes when the game was already out of reach.
“It hurt,” Johnson said, as he laughed it off. “I was tired, but it hurt."
With three other guards — senior guard Rob Phinisee and sophomore guards Trey Galloway and Khristian Lander — sidelined for the time being, there is no other option. Johnson must lead the Hoosiers if they’re to turn the win against Maryland into a run toward the postseason.
Junior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis said in the days leading up to Thursday’s game that a few rough games wouldn’t define Johnson, and Johnson has already shown that resilience.
So instead of reliving those painful memories, Hoosier fans witnessed growth. Now, a matchup with second-to-last Minnesota awaits on Sunday, and with it, a chance to build a meaningful stretch of wins as March approaches.
“We want to play in the (NCAA) tournament,” Thompson said. “None of us have ever played in the tournament. And that's a goal we're all trying to reach as a unit.”