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Saturday, June 15
The Indiana Daily Student

sports men's basketball

COLUMN: Indiana basketball’s emotional win vs. Michigan State, a sweet senior sendoff

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As Xavier Johnson settled in the northeast corner of Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, his teammates hurried after him. 

Indiana men’s basketball’s sixth-year senior guard had concluded his final scheduled game in Bloomington, a 65-64 win over Michigan State on Sunday inside Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. 

After completing the handshake line, Johnson slowly walked back to the locker room, savoring each moment. His left hand carried the game ball. His right hand wiped away his tears. 

For Johnson, who missed 13 games this season due to foot and elbow injuries, the moment was six years and several hurdles in the making. 

“It's tears of joy,” Johnson said. “I battled throughout the whole year mentally and physically. Those final seconds are like, ‘It's really my last game.’” 

For Indiana’s senior class, little came easy — especially in Johnson’s case. 

Johnson spent the first three years of his career at the University of Pittsburgh before transferring to Indiana for the 2021-22 season. 

He was the starting point guard on the Hoosiers squad that ended a five-year NCAA Tournament drought and was expected to play a similarly important role the year after — until a foot injury cost him all but 11 games. 

The 24-year-old Johnson was supposed to drive the boat for Indiana’s young roster this season, but injuries again arose. His path was arduous. His final home performance — 3 points, four rebounds, four assists and four turnovers — was similarly challenging. 

But as Johnson raced to the end of the court, ball in hand and victory secured, nothing else mattered. 

“It's just crazy because from where I started to where I finished, I know it's been a difficult year,” Johnson said. “It's like I still pushed through everything I've been through, and I got to the finish line. Really, really proud of myself and really proud of my teammates as well.” 

Naturally, winning wasn’t easy. 

The Hoosiers, who led by as many as 17 points in the first half, suddenly trailed by 7 points with 15:23 remaining. Indiana head coach Mike Woodson sent Johnson in for freshman Gabe Cupps with 9:59 to go and never went back to his bench. 

Win or lose, the group of Johnson, senior guard Anthony Leal, freshman forward Mackenzie Mgbako and sophomore big men Malik Reneau and Kel’el Ware were going to finish the game. 

Woodson couldn’t turn to senior guard Trey Galloway, who departed with a lower-body injury and had to watch the final 32 minutes from the bench. Johnson and Leal, neither of whom received the senior day start, were given the reigns. 

Indiana’s hopes of making the postseason, of avoiding a losing record in Big Ten play, of celebrating senior day after a victory — all on the shoulders of Johnson and Leal. And they delivered. 

“I was determined tonight to play the seniors because it was their night,” Woodson said. “X and Leal were going to stay in there no matter what. We hung in there. We got the big stop we needed coming down the stretch and got the rebound to secure the win.” 

The Hoosiers (18-13, 10-10 Big Ten) have now won four straight games. They’re getting hot at the right time and likely need to win four more games in as many days at next week’s Big Ten Tournament to make it to March Madness. 

Johnson doesn’t believe it’s a coincidence the winning streak has coincided with his return from an elbow injury that cost him six games in February. Woodson said each night he fell asleep thinking about what this year’s Hoosiers would’ve looked like had Johnson not been hurt. 

Perhaps the team that finished Sunday’s victory is the answer. 

“We're playing as good as any team in the country right now based on the last four games,” Woodson said. 

Twice in its four consecutive victories — first against Wisconsin on Feb. 27 and again Sunday vs. Michigan State — the Hoosiers blew double-digit first-half leads but battled back and pulled through in the end. In another — March 3 at Maryland — they overcame a double-digit second-half deficit. 

Indiana’s season, which once seemed lost, has been found. Life is back in the locker room, and there’s no better time. 

“I think this is a different team going down the stretch,” Johnson said. “The old team of a couple games ago would've probably quit. I don't think we took punches well. But now I think we really do take the punches well. We want to hit back and win games. It's coming down to the point where it's March.” 

Perhaps no play better summarizes Indiana’s senior class than Johnson’s go-ahead 3-pointer with 7:58 to play in the second half. He glanced at the stands, holding up three fingers. Michigan State subsequently called timeout, and senior forward Anthony Walker was the first to greet the players on the court. Galloway quickly high-fived Leal. 

None of the four played particularly well. Johnson finished with 3 points, while Leal was shutout. Walker was also held scoreless and didn’t play in the second half. Galloway had 5 points before leaving with his injury. 

But the Hoosiers’ senior core battled and remained engaged in whatever manner they could. A critical Indiana victory followed. 

Leal and Galloway announced after the game they’ll both utilize their fifth year of eligibility and return next season. For Johnson and Walker, Sunday’s game was the home finale — but there’s still time to make this season magical. 

Indiana will head to the Big Ten Tournament as a No. 6 seed, playing at approximately 9 p.m, Thursday against a foe still to be determined. The Hoosiers have never won the conference tournament but may need to do so this year to make the Big Dance. 

And after being left for dead weeks ago, the Hoosiers have been revived — led by a senior class that just doesn’t give up. 

“We got to take it a game at a time,” Woodson said. “I'll never jump ahead. I don't know who we'll face the first game of the Big Ten tournament, but one game at a time and see where it leads us.” 

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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