Indiana freshman forward Mackenzie Mgbako stepped to the free throw line with two foul shots to come, a scattered crowd of Michigan fans creating as much noise as possible.
Holding a one-point lead with less than six seconds to play, Mgbako had the game on his shoulders. The 19-year-old calmly hit the first, then the second, and watched as the Hoosiers survived the closing seconds, taking a 78-75 victory over Michigan inside the Crisler Center.
Indiana entered Tuesday night’s contest as 7.5-point underdogs and played without sixth-year senior guard Xavier Johnson, who’s battling an ankle injury. Given a chance to fold in their first true road game, the Hoosiers persevered time and again in the second half, snatching their fourth straight victory and improving to 2-0 in the Big Ten.
Indiana’s come a long way in a short time. Head coach Mike Woodson acknowledged earlier this season there was lots to learn in the campaign’s first few weeks, and in the games that have followed the Hoosiers’ 20-point loss to the University of Connecticut on Nov. 19, Woodson’s discovered an encouraging trait: resiliency. This was perhaps best illustrated Tuesday night in Ann Arbor.
“We’re a competitive team,” Woodson said postgame. “We’re playing hard, and I think after that UConn game, it kind of taught us we’ve got to play harder. They smacked us in the face. Since then, we’ve been playing a lot better.”
This isn’t the first time the Hoosiers have battled through adversity and proven mentally tough in the second half. After Indiana’s 69-63 victory over Florida Gulf Coast University on Nov. 7, senior guard Trey Galloway praised his team’s fight to rally from a 6-point deficit inside of 10 minutes.
The Hoosiers found themselves in a similar spot against Michigan, trailing 59-53 with just under nine minutes to play. They quickly responded with a 7-0 run over the next 89 seconds, and the game remained within one possession the rest of the way.
Playing without an experienced veteran and leadership presence in Johnson, Indiana went punch-for-punch with the Wolverines down the stretch – and ultimately delivered the knockout blow at the end.
“I thought we fought,” Woodson said postgame. “We turned the ball over a lot the first half, but that is the difference in the second half. We made the key shots coming down the stretch and got key rebounds and stops when we had to get them.”
The Hoosiers had 10 turnovers in the first half but just three in the second, including zero over the final 11:26. They scored on seven of their final nine possessions, relying on the sophomore big-man tandem of forward Malik Reneau and center Kel’el Ware to finish at the rim – and they did.
Reneau led Indiana with 15 points, while Ware added 13 more, including a running skyhook that gave the Hoosiers a 75-73 lead with less than a minute to play. Woodson said afterwards that was the biggest play of the game.
Mgbako had his third straight game in double figures, collecting 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting. The Hoosiers’ bench came to play, with sophomore guard C.J. Gunn notching a season-high 8 points and senior forward Anthony Walker matching that total.
Indiana’s starting guards – Galloway and freshman Gabe Cupps, taking over for Johnson – had difficult days offensively. Galloway scored 9 points, shooting 3-of-12 from the field and 3-of-6 at the free throw line, while Cupps missed his lone field goal attempt but added 2 points. The duo also had four assists and one turnover.
The picture is beginning to grow clearer on Indiana’s strengths and weaknesses. Ware and Reneau have been the Hoosiers’ most consistent players and rank first and second on the team in both points and rebounds. Mgbako has started delivering on the hype that came with his status as a five-star recruit, emerging as a capable third scorer.
Guard play has been rocky, as Cupps hasn’t made a shot in his last six games and Woodson admitted postgame he needs Galloway to be more comfortable. With Johnson’s timeline uncertain – he was questionable entering Tuesday but missed his second straight contest – the Hoosiers may have to roll with Cupps and Galloway playing 30-plus minutes a night frequently in games to come.
Indiana’s bench has taken a step forward of late, with the unit posting 28 points against Michigan, its second most this year. In addition to the 8 points received from Gunn and Walker, sophomore forward Kaleb Banks and junior forward Payton Sparks scored 6 points apiece.
This level of balance off the bench hasn’t been prominent this year but could help take the Hoosiers’ offense to another level.
In essence, Woodson’s learned a lot – some good, some bad – but perhaps the most encouraging takeaway from Tuesday night is this year’s Hoosiers are mentally wired the right way.
Talent was never a question for Indiana. Now, resiliency isn’t, either. A talented team is dangerous, but a talented team with the ability to overcome adversity can reach greater levels, and the Hoosiers found new heights in Ann Arbor.
“Playing hard and tough on the road is really important,” Reneau said postgame. “If you steal one or two, three games off the road, you’re sitting in a good spot in the Big Ten. So, that’s what we’re doing.”