On a night Indiana men’s basketball needed a victory to propel itself above Rutgers in both the Big Ten standings and NCAA Tournament selection discussion, it instead crashed out of contention altogether with a 66-63 loss Wednesday.
What was supposed to be a night filled with celebration and joy for the Hoosiers’ seniors was spoiled by the reality that they will, more likely than not, be on the outside looking in for a sixth-straight season.
Hoosier fans displayed positivity and support toward senior forward Race Thompson and senior guard Parker Stewart during their emotional post-game speeches, but the somber feeling that floated around Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall will stick around in the coming weeks because of what could’ve been.
“I wanted nothing more for them to at least experience winning on senior night,” Indiana head coach Mike Woodson said. “I went with my senior guys tonight in a critical game, and we fell short. I remember 43 years ago (on senior night) playing my last game in this building and winning a Big Ten title.”
As is usually the case for college basketball games during March, Wednesday’s game came down to the final few possessions. The Hoosiers chased the lead for the final three minutes and found themselves in position to tie the game or take the lead on multiple occasions in that span, but they missed the mark on five of their last six shot attempts.
Stewart redeemed his 2-9 shooting performance from beyond the arc with a 3-pointer that tied the game with 10 seconds remaining. It seemed as though he and the Hoosiers set themselves up for a storybook ending in their 2021-22 home finale, but senior guard and forward Ron Harper Jr., who has made a name for himself with late-game heroics, crushed the spirit out of Assembly Hall with a game-winning 3-pointer of his own with two seconds on the clock.
“Honestly, I thought Race played really good defense,” junior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis said about the last possession. “There's only so much you can do. You've got to get that one possession because (that) can beat you. Down the stretch, that's what we've got to hone in on.”
It was largely through Indiana’s upperclassmen’s performances that the team was able to hold the lead for over 33 minutes on Wednesday night, but a 3-15 shooting mark in the final nine minutes allowed Rutgers to build its way back. While Rutgers showed composure in its free-throw shooting and shot-making down the stretch, Indiana struggled to finish favorable chances at the rim or knock down open 3-pointers.
Jackson-Davis and Thompson set the tone early for the Hoosiers and attacked the Scarlet Knights’ paint protection often in the first half. One of Jackson-Davis’ best first-half performances came in the form of 15 points on 6-8 shooting and seven rebounds. His and Thompson’s contributions translated to 16 points in the paint in the opening 20 minutes and 22 of Indiana’s 32 first-half points.
While Indiana’s guards struggled to find any rhythm with a combined 1-8 mark from the field in the first half and relied on the forwards to create offense, the roles reversed coming out of the halftime break. Senior forward Xavier Johnson led all Indiana players with 10 second-half points and single-handedly swung the momentum back in the team’s favor with a personal 8-point scoring run once Rutgers took its first lead of the second half.
That’s where the consistent production stopped for the Hoosiers, though, as their inability to attack zone defenses effectively was exposed in the closing stages.
Jackson-Davis and Thompson were completely shut out of the game in the second half, posting a combined 9 points on only seven shot attempts. The Hoosiers tried to offset the drop in production by settling for 3-pointers, but they went just 6-21 from long range.
Now, while each Indiana player has at least one year of eligibility left, Wednesday’s loss may serve as the final memory several of them have at Assembly Hall. No player has officially announced that this will be their final season, but Thompson’s teary-eyed speech to Hoosier fans and his teammates, who he called his “brothers for life,” may have unintentionally revealed his future plans.
"They've been a big piece to the puzzle this year,” Woodson said. “They're gonna be missed."
Though Indiana’s chances to make the NCAA Tournament look bleak, there are still opportunities to ruin their Big Ten foes’ chances of making it and earn one of the final seeds for themselves.
The Hoosiers will have to either upset No. 8 Purdue for a second time in the team’s final regular season game at 2 p.m. Saturday or make it far in the Big Ten Tournament to feel better about where they stand in the postseason mix.
“If we go down to Purdue and win a big game there, it puts us back in the mix,” Woodson said. “I have no idea (about) the selection and all that. We're going to have to win some games probably in the tournament as well, but it's not over. We've got to keep fighting.”