Indiana men’s basketball tipped off its 2023-24 season with a 69-63 against Florida Gulf Coast thanks to a late second half run by the Hoosiers.
“Make no mistake, it was our defense coming down the stretch that got us back,” Indiana head coach Mike Woodson said postgame. “The fans got into it, and that was very helpful getting us on a roll. That was enough just to bring it home for us.”
The Hoosiers controlled the game early but didn’t have the score to show for it. They made six of their first eight shots while holding FGCU to 4-of-15 to start but only led by 2 points in the first 10 minutes of the game.
Sophomore center Kel’el Ware established his rim protection in the first few minutes of the game with volleyball-esque blocks, smashing the Eagles’ shot attempts into the stands. On the perimeter, Indiana forced four turnovers in the game’s opening but had five of its own.
Ware used his size and physicality offensively as well, putting the Eagles in foul trouble early and frequenting the free throw line. Indiana reached the double bonus mark less than 13 minutes in. Ware stuffed the stat sheet in the first frame with 8 points, eight rebounds and three blocks.
Nonetheless, Florida Gulf Coast continued to lurk throughout the half, never trailing by more than 6 and ultimately trailing by 2 at the half.
The Eagles’ 15 first-half fouls earned Indiana 18 trips to the charity stripe, but the Hoosiers only converted 10 at a poor 55.6% clip. Indiana’s defense performed well on the stat sheet — forcing FGCU to 10-of-32 for a 31.3% rate — but half the Eagles’ made shots were 3-pointers to keep the contest tight.
A primary reason for FGCU’s 3-point success came from Indiana’s defensive breakdowns. Woodson stated an unfamiliarity with rotations in Monday morning’s presser and the Eagles exposed that issue.
"I feel like it’s just miscommunication,” Ware said. “Once we get the communication down, I feel like we’ll be well, even when off the ball and getting back to our men.”
Indiana started the second half on fire, making six of its first seven shots. Ware showcased another aspect of his game with three assists to Hoosiers cutting to the basket or spotting up for Indiana’s first three buckets of the frame.
Still, Florida Gulf Coast was unperturbed. The Eagles continued their 3-point barrage to hang around. A wide-open deep ball from junior guard Dallion Johnson gave FGCU a 43-42 lead with 12 minutes and 25 seconds to go, the start of an 8-0 run.
An and-one layup from sophomore forward Malik Reneau at the 10:35 mark woke the Assembly Hall crowd up, kickstarting a 14-0 run during which Hoosier nation became deafening and gained an 8-point advantage. Woodson employed a three-guard lineup featuring seniors Xavier Johnson and Trey Galloway alongside freshman Gabe Cupps which helped spark the run.
“I think it was a good job down the stretch of finding ways to get stops,” Galloway said. “Whatever lineup it is, (it’s about) finding ways to be better and get better.”
The Hoosiers’ spurt was just what they needed at just the right time, and the momentum didn’t cease. Cupps made a significant contribution off the bench down the stretch, hounding the Eagles’ guards and sinking a leaning 3-pointer for his first collegiate field goal to give Indiana an 11-point lead with four minutes remaining. It was Indiana’s first double-digit lead of the night.
“He’s a winner,” Woodson said about Cupps. “He’s capable of hanging in there and making basketball plays. I thought he was tremendous on both ends.”
As they did all game, the Eagles refused to lay down. They clawed back to cut the deficit to 2 points with 35 seconds remaining, contributed by self-inflicted wounds from the Hoosiers like turnovers and missed free throws.
Senior guard Xavier Johnson made 3-of-4 free throws in the final 30 seconds to put the game just out of reach and Ware sunk one final free throw to seal a 69-63 Indiana win.
Galloway paced the Hoosiers’ balanced scoring effort with 16 points, while Reneau added 15, Johnson scored 14 and Ware finished with 13. Ware snagged a total of 12 rebounds to post a double-double.
Indiana shot an efficient 51.1% from the field but disappointed with marks of 30.8% behind the arc and 63.3% at the free throw line. Defensively, it held FGCU to 38.7% from the field but allowed 13 threes at a 38.2% mark.
“The things I look at from a defensive standpoint, we held them to 63 points, and that’s kind of in the ballpark of where we want to be,” Woodson said. “It was all the miscues on the backside of our defense that we just weren’t executing. I’ve got to get that fixed and cleaned up.”
Next up the Hoosiers will face Army West Point at 7 p.m. Sunday in Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. The game will be available to watch on Big Ten Network.