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Sunday, April 14
The Indiana Daily Student

sports men's basketball

COLUMN: Xavier Johnson bounces back, leads Indiana basketball over Ohio State

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Xavier Johnson sat courtside, head down, eyes closed, headphones on. 

Indiana men’s basketball was still over 90 minutes away from tipoff Saturday night against Ohio State, affording the sixth-year senior point guard an opportunity to reflect – perhaps on his last five years, his last month and a half and his last three days. 

The result was an inspired Johnson, who scored 18 points and produced 34 turnover-free minutes in the Hoosiers’ 71-65 victory over the Buckeyes (12-3, 1-2 Big Ten) inside Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.

Johnson’s effort is only made more impressive consider his scoreless, three-turnover performance in Indiana’s 86-70 loss to Nebraska on Jan. 3, which Hoosiers head coach Mike Woodson dubbed “awful” several times in the ensuing hours. 

It was Johnson’s first game since suffering what he described as a cracked foot Nov. 26 against Harvard University. He’d only practiced a few times before returning and managed only 14 minutes against Nebraska, resulting in Woodson taking blame for his guard’s struggles. 

The two had several intense discussions in the days that followed Wednesday’s loss. Both were irritated – Johnson with his minutes, Woodson with the level of play he received.

When thinking about Woodson’s conversations with Johnson, Indiana sophomore guard CJ Gunn grimaced, reflecting the frequency and severity of their talks. 

But on gameday morning, Woodson approached Johnson with a different tone and watched as the latter excelled. 

“I told him at shootaround I was going to play him, let him loose,” Woodson said postgame. “I thought he was huge tonight. I gave him the game ball, him and CJ.” 

Johnson went 4-of-9 from the field, making both attempts from 3-point range while hitting 8-of-11 free throws. He pitched in three assists while pulling down a trio of rebounds, two of which came inside the game’s final minute and helped Indiana seal a victory. 

The 24-year-old Johnson has endured a frustrating 13 months, dating back to a broken foot sustained in Dec. 2022 that cost him the remainder of last season. He returned rejuvenated, eyeing a strong final act. 

But through the first seven games of his sixth collegiate campaign, Johnson averaged just nine points and 2.3 assists per game. He felt he was pressing offensively, trying to do too much as Indiana’s guard play came under scrutiny for inconsistent productivity. 

Johnson entered Saturday determined to get back on track – and he did exactly that. 

“I was definitely motivated,” Johnson said. “I haven't been myself lately. I've been off for a month, so I was trying to find a rhythm in that game. Tonight, I let the game come to myself. I trusted my coaching staff, my teammates to make the right play.” 

Johnson’s breakthrough game served as a reminder of how vital he is to the Hoosiers’ offensive attack. Just as important, it rewarded the mental and physical obstacles he overcame rehabbing his foot the past five weeks. 

“It's been challenging,” Johnson said.  “I tried to stay in it with my teammates, conditioning up. Just tried to be a positive impact on the team even though I'm not playing.” 

There were several moments in which Johnson proved he was back during Saturday’s victory. 

A lob to sophomore center Kel’el Ware just six minutes into the game was followed by Johnson twice tapping his own head, illustrating Ware’s dunk over the top of Ohio State senior center Zed Key, before excitedly clapping his hands on defense. 

Later in the first half, Johnson sank a 3-pointer from the left chwing while being fouled by Ohio State senior guard Dale Bonner. Johnson laid on the ground, arms out, legs extended, before being swarmed by his teammates. 

In the second half, Johnson scored 10 points, including a 3-pointer that gave Indiana a 53-52 lead with 9:50 to play, an advantage it never relinquished. He scored 5 points in the final 4:42, providing a steady veteran presence down the stretch. 

That’s who Woodson needs Johnson to be. It’s far from where he was Wednesday, but he took a considerable step forward Saturday and helped elevate Indiana (11-4, 3-1 Big Ten) to a critical bounce-back win. 

“He's hungry for this, and we're counting on him,” Gunn said. “He's our captain, our guard, so we all look to him for leadership, and he's done an absolutely amazing role doing that. He is going to help us lead us through this Big Ten and hopefully win the championship.” 

Follow reporters Will Foley (@foles24) and Matt Press (@MattPress23) and columnist Daniel Flick (@ByDanielFlick) for updates throughout the Indiana men’s basketball season. 

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