This was the last chance. Yes, the same was also said about Indiana men’s basketball’s final stretch of regular-season games. Opportunity after opportunity presented itself, but the Hoosiers failed to make the most of the destiny they controlled.
Unlike the latter half of February following its five-game losing streak, Indiana was left without any officially scheduled games to fall back on when it entered Thursday’s second round matchup against Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament.
Facing a 17-point deficit to the Wolverines with just over 10 minutes left to save its season, the team that has earned a reputation for blowing comfortable leads and failing to close conference games out due to mediocre offensive performances seemed primed to sit back and let the pattern continue.
Instead, the Hoosiers used those painful shortcomings to their advantage.
The ability to take those experiences as lessons rather than sulking over the past guided Indiana toward a 31-7 run to complete an improbable comeback for a 74-69 win against Michigan. It’s also the difference between a one-and-done appearance and a quarterfinal matchup.
“I feel like we learned from our mistakes in the past,” senior guard Xavier Johnson said. “We've been watching a lot of film, learning from it and just working on (the mistakes). Now we have the chance to go prove it.”
The large Hoosier crowd inside Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis rarely rose out of their seats in the first half, watching their team limp to a 41-28 halftime deficit. Indiana failed to create easy opportunities for itself in the paint and settled for 3-pointers that, more often than not, missed the mark. The team’s typically resilient defense gave way to Michigan and sophomore center Hunter Dickinson, giving up a 43.8% mark from the floor and 13 free-throw attempts.
Junior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis said head coach Mike Woodson called him out in the locker room at halftime, stressing that he wasn’t playing to his capabilities. The first 10 minutes out of the break showed little signs of promise as the two teams traded baskets, and Michigan stayed in control, but then came near-perfect play on both ends from Indiana.
Jackson-Davis responded to the challenge posed by Dickinson with one of his best halves of the season, attacking the post and scoring 19 of his game-high 24 points on 8-11 shooting. Meanwhile, Indiana’s defense forced Michigan into a field-goal drought of over nine minutes, giving the team more of a reason to believe it could win, possession by possession.
Johnson was the catalyst behind the high-tempo style Indiana resorted to in the closing stages. His efficiency and composure on the fast break created all of his seven game-high assists in the second half, but it was his improved 3-point shooting from the last time Indiana played in Gainbridge Fieldhouse which accounted for 17 much-needed points after the team’s earlier offensive cold spell.
Sophomore guard Trey Galloway made his return after missing the Hoosiers’ final five regular season games with a groin injury. He brought his usual energy to Indiana’s backcourt, using his 20 minutes effectively by snatching a team-high three steals and dishing out five assists.
Lost in Indiana’s closely-contested defeats was the fact that the team stayed competitive for long stretches with some of the Big Ten’s most dangerous squads. Despite chasing the lead for most of Thursday’s game, the Hoosiers were never truly put away and kept fighting with the clock against them.
“The game that I think about is Wisconsin, the first time we played them, what they did to us,” junior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis said. “One team believes, and the other team gets defeated. We believed we were going to win, and we kind of saw (Michigan) deflating and deflating, and then we finally got back.”
Other teams on the bubble — such as Xavier University and Wake Forest University — suffered upsets in the early stages of their respective conference tournaments on Wednesday. While those resumes took big hits, Indiana’s chances automatically improved before Thursday’s make-or-break game.
Suddenly, advancing just once in the Big Ten Tournament has become considered enough for the Hoosiers to make it into the “First Four” play-in round of the NCAA Tournament, at the very least.
"This is probably the biggest win for our program in such a long, long time,” Woodson said. “This team just won't quit, and that's a good sign."
Indiana will face No. 1-seed Illinois in the quarterfinals at 11:30 a.m. Friday with a chance to further solidify its place in March Madness.