PORTLAND, Ore. — There were moments of sloppiness for Indiana in its first NCAA Tournament game since 2008, but in the end the Hoosiers did what they had to do to win and win comfortably. Junior point guard Jordan Hulls got hot from beyond the arc for a game-high 22 points, the No. 4 seed Hoosiers kept No. 13 New Mexico State from dominating the paint and beat the Aggies 79-66 in front of 17,519 on Thursday at the Rose Garden to advance to the third round of the NCAA Tournament. They will play No 12 seed Virginia Commonwealth — which upset No. 5 seed Wichita State 62-59 earlier in the evening — on Saturday in the third round.
It was their first tournament victory in exactly five years since March 15, 2007.
“We are extremely happy,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said. “Not satisfied in the sense that we could’ve played better at times and there’s some more basketball ahead of us, but happy to have the first game put away now. The key for us was our approach. … For a team that had not been in this environment, had not been in this type of arena — and I don’t just mean Rose Garden, I mean the NCAA Tournament arena, they handled it very, very well.”
The Hoosiers hit on just about every goal of their game plan. They didn’t want to get pounded on the glass by the Aggies, who came into the game third in Division I in rebounding margin. New Mexico State still won the rebounding battle, but not by much, 23-21. Both teams had the same amount of offensive rebounds with seven.
The Aggies also shot more free throws this season (1,048) than any other team in Division I. On Thursday, the Hoosiers only sent them to the line 10 times, where they made eight free throws.
“That was huge for us,” freshman center Cody Zeller said. “They get a lot of offensive rebounds. They get to the free throw line quite a bit. Those are two of the biggest keys. I think it prepared us playing good teams in the Big Ten like Michigan State … I think that was a big key for us tonight and we did a fairly good job of that.”
They also knew that they could push the tempo on New Mexico State, but to do that, they needed turnovers. They caused 17, which allowed them to get in transition and score 24 points off turnovers.
Freshman center Cody Zeller was responsible for many of those himself, registering six steals, an Indiana school record for an NCAA Tournament game.
“I felt like I was quicker than their big guys,” Zeller said. “They were probably a little bit stronger. I just tried to use my quickness when they were passing inside. I just tried to get some deflections and just tried to be active.”
Beyond the obvious game plan points, the Hoosiers are always better when they’re hitting from outside and getting scoring from sources outside of Zeller.
Hulls made sure that happened in a big way.
The South graduate spent most of the first half looking to facilitate, hitting one 3-pointer but also dishing out three assists.
In the second half, though, he started getting looks, and once he did, he didn’t stop shooting. He finished 8-for-12 in the game from the field, 7-for-8 in the second half, knocking down four of six 3-pointers for 22 points.
“I was just getting open looks from my teammates,” Hulls said. “Whether it was off the ball screens or different things off of ball screens. I hit the first shot, then it started feeling a little bit better when it was leaving my hand and I was able to knock down some shots.”
Hulls hitting opened up things for everyone else as well. Junior forward Christian Watford actually got things started with 10 points in the first half and he finished with 14. Zeller and sophomore forward Will Sheehey also scored 14 each. The Hoosiers shot 59.3 percent for the game (32-for-54) and 64.3 percent (18-for-28) in the second half.
New Mexico State was shooting at almost as good of a clip. The Aggies made 55.1 percent of their shots (27-for-49) with senior forward Wendell McKines leading the way with 15 points and seven rebounds. However, the Hoosiers still took a double-digit lead in the first half, went into the break up 35-28, and went on a 17-5 run to take a 62-41 lead with 11:42 to go. New Mexico State got back within striking distance at 65-53, but were never closer than 12 and IU was reminded of the feel of an NCAA Tournament win.