He stood at the free-throw line, drowning out the distraction techniques from those in orange to his left and feeding off the encouragement from those in crimson to his right. With 26 seconds left, junior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis understood the meaning behind his next pair of shots.
He had attacked, attacked, attacked for all 40 minutes against Illinois. His 18 points up to that point were the result of an unwillingness to be stalled in the post, but they hadn’t come easy. These free throws would be the simplest of his tally, but it was also Jackson-Davis’ first trip to the line all of Friday afternoon.
He took a deep breath, caught the ball from the official and decided Indiana men’s basketball had gone far too long without dancing.
Jackson-Davis flushed both free throws through the net to put Indiana ahead by 1 point. He didn’t stop there, blocking Illinois guard senior Trent Frazier’s path to the driving lane and forcing him to throw an errant pass on the next possession. A few plays and another Jackson-Davis free throw later, Indiana booked its spot in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals with a 65-63 win.
“It was just belief,” Jackson-Davis said of his late free throws. “Coach Woodson gave me confidence. My teammates gave me confidence. After I got in that rhythm, the rest goes from there. I felt like I could score, so I was just doing my job.”
In Indiana’s regular-season losses to the two teams it has played so far in the Big Ten Tournament — No. 1 seed Illinois and No. 8 seed Michigan — Jackson-Davis gave in and was second-best to the centers he matched up against on both ends of the court.
When the Hoosiers lost their then-perfect 11-0 record at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall to Michigan in an 80-62 loss on Jan. 23, sophomore center Hunter Dickinson broke out for a 25-point performance. His four 3-pointers stretched Indiana’s defense and kept Jackson-Davis guessing as to how to position himself.
In Indiana’s Feb. 5 loss to Illinois — which jump-started Indiana’s five-game losing streak — junior center Kofi Cockburn used his 7-foot, 285-pound frame to force Jackson-Davis into early foul trouble and held him to 6 total points.
Although Jackson-Davis plays as a forward and is undersized against his counterparts, it has been his responsibility to contain both Michigan’s Dickinson and Illinois’ Cockburn on defense and find creative ways to live up to his scoring average of 17.6 points per game. Failure to do so in past matchups, along with the fact he had never managed a win against both Illinois and Michigan in his three-year career led critics to question his All-American, All-Big Ten first-team status.
“There's been a lot of talk, especially the last two years, of me not showing up at the end of the season,” Jackson-Davis said. “I'm trying to change that narrative.”
Starting in the second half of Wednesday’s second-round win over Michigan, it became clear Jackson-Davis set out to remind the college basketball world of his place among the sport’s most dominant frontcourt players. He poured in a game-high 24 points against Michigan, orchestrating the 31-9 closing run that made Indiana believe in its postseason chances again, all while limiting Dickinson to just 2 second-half points.
In the rematch with Cockburn and top-seeded Fighting Illini, Jackson-Davis showed no mercy backing into the immovable object. While the first half saw a more balanced scoring effort from the Hoosiers, Jackson-Davis went into the halftime break tied for the team lead in points with 6 on 3-5 shooting.
The biggest difference from the first matchup through the first 20 minutes of Friday’s game wasn’t Jackson-Davis’ scoring output, but instead his ability to recognize when to test Cockburn. Defensively, Jackson-Davis made the elephant in the Gainbridge Fieldhouse arena a second option in Illinois’ offensive scheme. Patience and a mature approach against Cockburn meant Jackson-Davis had just one foul to his name at halftime. This time, he could come back for more.
He did so the rest of the way, carrying Indiana’s offense with 15 of its 34 second-half points. He grabbed seven rebounds to go along with his 21-point effort, limiting second chance opportunities for Cockburn in what was a closely contested game to the final seconds.
“Illinois was a bully today, and I think we took care of that problem,” Jackson-Davis said. “Finally getting that one (against Illinois) like Michigan, it's just getting another thing off my chest.”
Over the past two games of tournament play, Jackson-Davis has averaged a 63.3% shooting mark, making the most of the offensive possessions Indiana decides to run through its greatest threat.
Jackson-Davis decided to stay at Indiana for an extra season with the dream of finally making the NCAA Tournament, and it’s through his reinspired play that the Hoosiers can call themselves a lock for March Madness. First up, though, is a Big Ten Tournament semifinal date with the Iowa Hawkeyes at 1 p.m. Saturday.
"(Like Xavier Johnson) told you yesterday, we didn't pack for two days,” Jackson-Davis said. “We packed to win the Big Ten."