INDIANAPOLIS — Sophomore forward Malik Reneau hoisted a free throw to convert an and-one layup and give Indiana its first double-digit lead of Sunday’s contest against Harvard University, but it hit rim. Freshman forward Mackenzie Mgbako soared through air to snatch the offensive rebound before going right back up, banking in the layup while drawing a foul of his own and celebrating with a flex on the floor to cap off a career night and breakout performance.
Mgbako sunk the free throw to secure his 18th point of the game — a career high at Indiana by 5 points. The freshman’s offensive output was the first real glimpse as a Hoosier of the talent and skills he showcased in high school to earn his 5-star label.
The Gladstone, New Jersey, native started his scoring early, sinking three jump shots to account for 6 of Indiana’s first 12 points of the game. Two of the jumpers were inches away from counting as 3-pointers — an area the Hoosiers and Mgbako have struggled with this season.
With Indiana trailing by 6 points with 9:30 remaining in the first half, Mgbako connected on a 3-pointer after a six-minute drought since his last shot attempt. Mgbako’s make sparked a 9-0 Hoosier run to regain the lead and marked a 4-of-5 start from the field for the freshman. Mgbako entered the contest shooting 32%.
His three ball was his last basket of the half, and he struggled the rest of the frame, especially on the defensive end. With 2:35 left in the half, Mgbako exhibited a lackadaisical effort fighting around a screen, allowing Harvard junior guard Louis Lesmond an open 3-pointer to cut the Crimson’s deficit to 2 points.
Indiana head coach Mike Woodson immediately substituted Mgbako out. Woodson has previously remarked on Mgbako’s lack of effort and Nov. 12 he said the freshman needed to play harder to earn more minutes. However, Woodson has also accepted there will be growing pains and cited his lack of experience.
“He’s a freshman,” Woodson said postgame. “You guys expect so much from these young kids and it’s a learning process.”
In the second frame, Mgbako matched his first-half scoring output while holding his own defensively in an improved effort.
Offensively, he found multiple ways to score. He posted two straight buckets for Indiana — a fastbreak layup and mid-range jumper — to give the Hoosiers their first lead of the second half three minutes in. Two minutes later, Mgbako started the eventual game-sealing run with a pair of free throws.
Defensively, Mgbako provided his best defensive minutes of the season, standing his ground on the perimeter and contesting shots in the paint with his 6-foot-8 frame. He flew around for a second half-high six rebounds as Indiana held Harvard to nine offensive rebounds in the game.
Indiana’s 89 points tied a season high and Mgbako was a big piece of the puzzle. Despite the obvious 18 points scored, the threat of Mgbako scoring from outside opened up the paint for the Hoosier frontcourt to dominate. Indiana outscored Harvard in the paint 50-28.
“It doesn’t just help me, but I feel like it helps the whole team,” Mgbako said. “It helps open up the floor more, the defenders have to get out there to the three-ball, especially when we got guys who can make the shots.”
Mgbako came into Sunday’s game averaging 5 points per game and 2.4 rebounds per game on poor shooting efficiency. Despite a 1-of-5 effort from deep, he finished the match 7-of-13 from the field.
The freshman forward concurred with Woodson about his slow start and inexperience but said now Indiana is six games into the season, he’s starting to get the hang of things.
“100%,” Mgbako said. “I feel like the team really helps each other, especially when I’m a freshman coming in, and being able to start and get good minutes under my belt while also helping the team.”
Woodson approved of Mgbako’s performance on both sides of the ball. He said offensively, it was a game where he figured things out and can continue to grow and let things happen. Defensively, Woodson thought similarly.
“He was better,” Woodson said. “He’s got a ways to go, but he’s making nightly progress. You just got to continue to work and, if you do that, good things will continue to happen.”
After displaying a sliver of his potential to help lead the Hoosiers to a win over the Crimson, Mgbako’s next challenge is consistency. From both a production and effort standpoint, Mgbako individually and Indiana as a team have yet to show stability and reliability despite the 5-1 record.
The Hoosiers’ next contest will start Big Ten play. Indiana faces Maryland at 7 p.m. Friday in Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. The game will be available on Big Ten Network.