Indiana men’s basketball needs Miller Kopp, and Miller Kopp needs Indiana men’s basketball.
The graduate student forward entered Saturday’s game against Illinois on the back of a 1-for-6 shooting night Wednesday at Northwestern. Students from his former school jeered him with expletive chants. Kopp was rattled.
He returned with a fury Saturday, draining four 3-pointers to help lead No. 14 Indiana to a 71-68 victory over Illinois.
“That night is over,” Kopp said after the game. “For me, it was just about locking into this game. My teammates needed me, and I needed them, and we got it done.”
Behind Kopp, the Hoosiers were able to lean on 3-point shooting late to escape the Illini. Indiana was 5-for-11 from the field, while Illinois finished with a 30% mark from deep.
Kopp started early, hitting a deep 3-point attempt early in the game. Kopp said the make helped him find a rhythm early and spent the rest of the game working to get open and in senior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis' eyesight.
Kopp and Jackson-Davis have developed a connection when the latter gets trapped, Kopp said.
“I'm so angry if he doesn't shoot it,” Jackson-Davis said. “Every time he touches it, I want the ball up. Every single time.”
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Illinois fifth year forward Matthew Mayer started hot from deep, making four of his first five, but missed his next six. He finished with the same number of attempts as Indiana’s entire team.
Just a few possessions after Mayer’s eighth attempt, an airball, sophomore forward Tamar Bates passed up a long-range shot in favor of a jumper from just inside the arc. The shot from Bates, who entered Saturday shooting 40% from deep, was blocked, and the Illini turned it into a dunk on the other end.
Indiana was down 7 points at the time, was 2-for-6 from deep and hadn’t attempted a 3-pointer three minutes into the second half. But the Hoosiers were timid from beyond the arc for most of the game, which didn’t aid the team’s deficit.
Kopp then reignited, hitting two more triples, the last of which tied the game at 59 while Indiana clawed back from what was, at one time, a 9-point deficit.
“The bottom line, he's played well here at home for us,” head coach Mike Woodson said. “So, I expect him to make shots here. He's got the fan base, and he's got everybody in his corner, so it makes it a lot easier for him.”
After living by the 3-pointer in the first half, going 6-for-12 to push its lead to 3 points at halftime, Illinois couldn’t produce from deep at all in the second half, missing each of its eight attempts. Mayer accounted for a large chunk of that production — he scored 16 of his 24 points in the first half and was already 4-for-10 from deep at the break.
Mayer cooled off in the second half, making just one of seven shots from the field. It started, again, with Kopp. During intermission, Woodson said he gave Kopp an earful regarding his first half defense against Mayer.
“He was just saying I had to step up,” Kopp said. “(Mayer) got too many good looks in the first half from transition, from broken plays, and a couple of my mishaps just mentally and not being aware and really locked in.”
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Freshman guard Jalen Hood-Schifino hit the only other make from deep in the game, a shot to cut Illinois’ lead to 2 points late. Hood-Schifino struggled all game, finishing the night 5-for-17 from the field with 13 points, including a late resurgence in which he finished the game 3-for-5 and hit the go-ahead field goals.
“I always judge players at the end of the game about who they are as a player, and he made the plays down the stretch that counted,” Woodson said. “If he had miscued those plays, then I'm in his ear after the game or tomorrow saying, 'Hey, these are things that you've got to learn the next time you're in that position.' But he made every right play.”
Kopp’s night came just days after, perhaps, his worst shooting performance of the year. When a once-friendly environment turned so hostile his former program released a statement condemning its students’ actions, Kopp didn’t stay fazed.
“It wasn't fun, but it is what it is, and it's over,” Kopp said. “I've got an amazing support system around me with teammates, with coaches, with (Athletic Director) Scott Dolson, just letting me know that they're with me and behind me and have my back no matter what for as long as I'm here and on.”