NEW YORK – For a moment, Indiana basketball appeared to be heading towards a somber flight back to Bloomington.
Just one day removed from a 20-point loss to the No. 5 University of Connecticut, the Hoosiers trailed the University of Louisville 64-61 at the final media timeout. Over the final 3:38, everything changed.
Indiana head coach Mike Woodson went to a 2-3 zone that not only kept the Cardinals off the scoreboard but gave the Hoosiers life, sparking a 13-2 run that vaulted Indiana to a 74-66 victory Monday evening inside Madison Square Garden.
Senior guard Xavier Johnson said postgame Indiana hadn’t practiced the zone much at all, as Woodson isn’t a fan of it – but there were no better alternatives with another game slipping away.
Conversely, Louisville coach Kenny Payne revealed afterwards his team has practiced extensively against the zone but became stagnant against Indiana. Sophomore guard Skyy Clark agreed, noting they became tentative as the offense was pushed further away from the rim.
The result was a dominating defensive finish for the Hoosiers, who held the Cardinals to 1-of-5 from the field and 0-of-3 from beyond the arc. Louisville also missed a pair of free throws and had a turnover mixed in.
Indiana’s offense, as Woodson has long forecasted, found another gear, riding the wave of momentum created by its defense and the switch to the zone.
“They were getting downhill a lot, and we had to change the game,” Johnson said. “We went zone, and that opened everything up for us offensively.”
Starting with sophomore forward Malik Reneau’s two free throws upon returning from the timeout, Indiana scored on its final seven possessions despite attempting – and making – only two field goals.
Still, the Hoosiers’ biggest flaws shouldn’t be disregarded by the strong finish.
Indiana went just 1-of-11 from 3-point range and didn’t attempt one during the final 12 minutes. The lone make came via Johnson with 4:14 to play in the first half. He didn’t take another shot from distance for the rest of the game.
This comes on the heels of a 3-of-13 shooting performance against UConn, and the Hoosiers have yet to make more than four 3-pointers in a regular season game this year. Woodson has said he wants an NBA offense, but the lack of outside makes – and attempts – doesn’t reflect that of a modern offense.
“Hopefully something triggers, and they make threes,” Woodson said.
It’s also important to recognize that while the transition to zone may have saved this particular game, it only serves as a mask of deeper defensive flaws.
“It’s always been in our back pocket, but I’ve never felt the urge to pull it out,” Woodson said. “I’m still trying to get our man-to-man defense where I need it to be. (The zone) helped us tonight.”
During a six-minute stretch in the middle of the second half, the Hoosiers allowed 23 points and saw a nine-point lead turn into a seven-point deficit.
But they rallied, taking a much-needed victory after the drubbing induced by UConn the night before.
“We bounced back,” Woodson said. “We got beat by 20 last night and we could easily go the other way. We led in this game, they came back, and then the zone saved us. We made the plays coming down the stretch.”
In the 24 hours that followed Indiana’s defeat, Woodson told his team to pay attention to how UConn played. The defending national champions brought energy for 40 minutes and outlasted the Hoosiers en route to a convincing win.
Johnson pulled a key lesson from Indiana’s loss: the team needs to stay connected for all 40 minutes, even when foul trouble and other spouts of adversity arise. The Hoosiers weren’t perfect Monday, but they persevered through a game full of runs to come out victorious.
“I think we responded pretty well,” Johnson said. “We can’t go back and get yesterday. We’ve got to come out and finish games and play a full 40.”
There may be no better embodiment of Indiana’s current state than its 3-point shooting efforts thus far. The Hoosiers have made 15-of-64 attempts from outside, good for 23.4%.
But Indiana, in part because of an easier schedule to start the season and in-game adjustments like Woodson’s switch to the zone, stands at 4-1 and has done no damage to its postseason resume.
The Hoosiers have provided many reasons to worry, but also continue to find ways to finish at the end. If nothing else, the Empire Classic has illustrated how much growth Indiana needs to make in the coming weeks – but the Hoosiers will enjoy their flight back to Bloomington after being the better team when it mattered most.
“Keep working,” Woodson said. “That’s all you can do. The bottom line is, we won.”