In the marquee game of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, Indiana reintroduced the nation to the best version of itself.
Defensive focus and intensity, big shots and the will to match No. 3 North Carolina where it is best — on the glass — propelled No. 13 IU to a 76-67 victory before an electric, capacity crowd at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall on Wednesday.
A week after they were on the wrong end of one of the biggest upsets of the young season, the Hoosiers returned to form against a previously undefeated heavyweight opponent. Wednesday marked Indiana’s fifth consecutive win over a top-three opponent at Assembly Hall, and the Hoosiers are now tied with Duke with six top-three victories at home since the 2011-12 season.
Indiana has now won 21 consecutive games on its home floor — and it found a measure of revenge against the program that ended its uplifting season back in March.
“It means a lot,” Indiana center Thomas Bryant said. “It just means that us, as a team, (are) taking a step forward and getting better every day. Everyone out there proved that.”
Wednesday saw IU (5-1) limit North Carolina (7-1) in transition and spend much of the night beating the Tar Heels to the boards. The Hoosiers and Heels each ended with 37 rebounds, but it was Indiana’s tenacity against its large and tough opponent that impressed.
“We know their bigs are the best in the country,” Indiana center Thomas Bryant said. “… We knew we had our work cut out for us at the beginning, so we wanted to establish that mindset to get in there and get after them.”
So, that’s what the Hoosiers did — getting after UNC with an aggressive defensive approach that produced five steals and held the Heels to eight second-chance points.
OG Anunoby posted a team-high 16 points, while James Blackmon Jr. added 14.
On a night when the Hoosiers returned Blackmon (knee) to the starting lineup, they may have lost Anunoby. After landing awkwardly following a late-game dunk, had to be carried off the floor with an apparent left ankle injury. After the game, he walked off the floor — an ice pack strapped to his left ankle — with assistance from strength and conditioning coach Lyonel Anderson.
Thomas Bryant added 12 points and seven rebounds, while Johnson scored 11 points and grabbed six boards.
Johnson was part of a three-guard starting backcourt that combined for 16 rebounds, including a team-high nine by Blackmon. Johnson keyed the attack early, posting a team-best 10 points at halftime, including a couple big 3-pointers.
“Rob was at another level tonight,” Crean said.
Yet, Johnson’s most important contributions came on defense, where he stuck to his man and swiped three steals. He also grabbed five defensive rebounds in the first half, which was a team-high at the break.
“Guard rebounds were going to be huge,” Crean said. “I put a lot of thought about whether we were going to start James or not. Not because we wouldn’t start him, but because we were going to manage his conditioning. He practiced some yesterday. Other than that, he hadn’t practiced. So I was not worried about his minutes as much as his energy to finish the game. But I said, ‘You know what? We’re going to ride with three guards tonight, and if we don’t rebound, we’re not winning. We knew that guard rebounds were going to be huge in this game. They are so physical when that shot goes up, and if you don’t match that, if you’re not fighting them for that position, you have no chance.”
Turned out, Indiana gave itself a good chance to prevail.
It was all part of a strong and assertive start to the night for IU, which built an early 12-5 lead by the first media timeout. That advantage was created through equal parts big shots and tough defense.
The Hoosiers attacked the post and beat the Tar Heels to the boards. It was an approach that at one point forced North Carolina to settle for perimeter jumpers.
But that’s not Carolina’s game, and the Heels struggled — hitting merely two of their first 12 shots from the field.
Indiana’s lead swelled to as many as 17 points midway through the first half, coinciding with a stretch that saw North Carolina fail to make a field goal for more than six minutes.
The Hoosiers continued to take away second-chance opportunities, and late in the half, they worked their way to a 16-9 advantage on the boards.
“I think it all started with the mindset that we came out with from the tip,” Johnson said. “We were aggressive on both sides of the glass. When we carry that mindset throughout the game, I think it’s really good for us.”
North Carolina evened out late in the half, then opened the second half by attacking Indiana. The Hoosiers, for a spell, didn’t return the fight.
The Tar Heels began the half by outscoring the Hoosiers, 8-4. The defensive intensity that marked IU’s start to the night was missing, and UNC cut its deficit to 43-35 a little more than three minutes into the period.
Carolina got within eight points five more times in the second half before cutting the deficit a little closer. The Tar Heels got within 61-54 on a layup by Kenny Williams, who gave the speedy visitors their first fastbreak points of the night with 5:19 to play.
From there, Carolina got as close as four points as the Hoosiers went four minutes without a field goal. James Blackmon Jr. ended that drought soon after with a huge 3-pointer that pushed IU’s lead back to eight with four minutes remaining.
“We had timely baskets,” Crean said. “We made some timely plays. We were winded. We were definitely winded and I wanted to save the timeouts as much as we could. One of the final things we did today as preparation for how to close the game, because Roy (Williams) is so good at playing from behind.”
On this night, the potential UNC comeback never fully materialized. The Tar Heels never got closer than five the rest of the way, and the Hoosiers pushed their advantage back to double digits, 73-61 with little more than a minute to play, holding on for another important resume-building win.
“Our guys, they are absolutely spent,” Crean said. “I would bet coach Williams’ guys are as well. They’re in a great frame of mind, but they’re absolutely spent. This was one of those games where they left every bit of it out there.”