CHICAGO — Jalen Hood-Schifino was thrown to the wolves.
That is, according to Indiana head coach Mike Woodson, who was referring to a season-ending injury suffered by graduate point guard Xavier Johnson Dec. 17 at the University of Kansas. After that, with the weight on Hood-Schifino's shoulders to facilitate and offer ample production in the Hoosiers’ offense, all eyes turned to the maturation of Indiana’s freshman floor general.
“He had to grow up awfully fast,” Woodson said after the game.
Friday night in a 70-60 win against Maryland in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals, Hood-Schifino delivered. He scored 19 points on 53% shooting, grabbed six rebounds and swatted three blocks while playing all 40 minutes.
[RELATED: Jackson-Davis, Hood-Schifino garner postseason Big Ten awards for Indiana men’s basketball]
Hood-Schifino helped guide the Hoosiers out of a once-8-point deficit and delivered a clutch performance in his first collegiate postseason game, handling all the pressure and taking charge admirably.
In comparison, on Jan. 31 in a 66-55 loss against the Terrapins, Hood-Schifino had 3 points on 1-14 shooting to go along with four turnovers. Saturday, though, he was the leader that the Hoosiers needed in order to survive and advance.
For freshman forward Malik Reneau, who competed alongside Hood-Schifino at Montverde Academy in high school, this behavior was nothing abnormal. According to Reneau, his guard counterpart has displayed a veteran level of poise from the get-go.
“From day one, when we first got to Montverde,” Reneau said, “We developed that habit of becoming a winner and to always leave it all out on the court every time we play.”
Reneau, who has struggled to assert himself amongst the dominant post players in the Big Ten, had a solid eight-point, 11-rebound performance. His presence was especially valuable when graduate forward Race Thompson found himself in foul trouble early on, and Reneau was tasked with carrying part of the load down low.
Like his former high school teammate, Reneau had a less-than-average showing in College Park, Maryland in the teams’ regular-season matchup. He had 6 points and fouled out of the game in 13 minutes.
Friday night, though, Reneau recorded just one personal foul at the midway point of the second half.
“Just being able to come off the bench and be a spark plug for my team,” Reneau said of his impact. “Knowing that when I'm in there, just being able to help out on the defensive side and offensive side, relieving the stress off these guys, especially Trayce (Jackson-Davis) and Race (Thompson).”
Hood-Schifino and Reneau combined for 8 points in a 15-0 second-half run that ultimately sealed Indiana’s victory. The other 7 points came from All-American senior forward Trayce Jackson-Davis, who flirted with a triple-double, notching an all-around dominant stat line of 24 points, nine rebounds, seven assists, three blocks and three steals.
In fact, Jackson-Davis is one of the biggest reasons for Reneau’s breakout performance. In going head-to-head with Indiana’s player of the year candidate, the freshman has learned to guard a variety of moves and hold his ground in the post.
“I think me and Malik complement each other very well,” Jackson-Davis said. “He's a freshman, but he’s doing his thing out there.”
Both Reneau and Hood-Schifino held their defensive assignments — Maryland senior forward Donta Scott and senior guard Jahmir Young, respectively — below their scoring averages. All night, the freshman duo was one crucial cog in a successful defensive machine that limited the Terrapins to just 25% shooting in the second half.
“I thought our switching was right on par, and we were able to keep people in front of us,” Woodson said. “The pick-and-rolls didn’t really hurt us, because we were up on the bigs.”
Despite a strong all-around effort from the young pair, the biggest play of the night came at the hands of Hood-Schifino with just over two minutes to play. In need of a bucket regardless, Hood-Schifino took and sank a contested 3-pointer with the shot clock winding down to give Indiana a 9-point lead.
“I looked at the clock, and it was obviously ticking down, so I knew I had to get a shot up,” Hood-Schifino said. “Just instinct, and I hit a little step-back --- it was good.”
The story of Indiana’s regular-season loss to Maryland was that of immaturity. Hood-Schifino's and Reneau’s individual performances were costly in the Hoosiers’ defeat, proving that Big Ten play was still a daunting task to the newcomers in January.
But Friday night, the freshman duo rewrote that story, earning their team a pivotal victory in just the first step of a postseason journey that favors poise.