UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — James Blackmon Jr. was on his bottom as the shot went in, a game-saving 3-pointer that saved the Hoosiers from utter collapse.
Indiana, which led by as many as 14 points midway through the second half, required late help from its leading scorer in an exhausting, 78-75 win over Penn State on Wednesday at the Bryce Jordan Center.
Mistakes and missed free throws put IU (13-6, 3-3) in a compromising situation late in its second conference road game. But Blackmon, who scored 17 points along with Robert Johnson and Thomas Bryant, bailed out the Hoosiers with a big shot.
It was flawless execution by Blackmon, who jumped from the floor in front of the IU bench and paraded around the court after the shot fell in. With Johnson and Bryant in tow, Blackmon ran around and pressed his right index finger against his lips, hushing the rest of the arena while the home crowd stared ahead in stunned silence.
“It felt great,” Blackmon said. “To get a tough road win in a tough conference, I feel like that can get us going.”
At this point, as they flirted with a disastrous collapse, it’s clear these Hoosiers need help — even more so after losing sophomore forward OG Anunoby to an apparent knee injury.
Even on a night that ended with equal parts victory and sweet relief, a sense of loss was not far behind.
Indiana coach Tom Crean had no immediate update on Anunoby, who writhed in agony after falling to the baseline seconds prior to halftime. Juwan Morgan, who missed the Penn State game with a foot injury, and strength and conditioning coach Lyonel Anderson had to assist Anunoby and help him slowly get up and into the locker room.
Replays of the moment the injury occurred showed Anunoby planting awkwardly under the basket in a non-contact situation before falling down in pain.
“We dealt with a lot of adversity tonight,” Crean said. “Obviously, when you have a player like OG (go down), who means so much not only to the basketball team, but far more to the basketball family, that’s hard. That’s hard on everybody. I have no update on him other than he certainly couldn’t have returned to the game. We’ll take the next step when we get home.”
Back in Bloomington, Indiana will prepare to face Michigan State on Saturday afternoon. That, much like Wednesday’s trip East, could go a long way toward helping the Hoosiers make up the necessary ground in the Big Ten standings.
Indiana can’t afford anymore home losses, and while a win at Penn State hardly looks attractive in the big picture lens of the regular season, Wednesday was a necessary step toward making up ground — no matter how uneven and sloppy it looked.
Three of Indiana’s 17 turnovers came in the final 1:08 of regulation. Freshman Curtis Jones missed a pair of front end one-and-ones, and after the second misfire, Shep Garner hit a 3-pointer over Blackmon to get Penn State within two points.
Garner’s shot cut what had been a 67-53 lead with 9:19 remaining to a 75-73 IU advantage with 39 seconds to go. On the ensuing possession, Bryant turned the ball over trying to drive from the perimeter, and former Indiana recruiting target Lamar Stevens drove and drew contact on the other end, hitting two free throws to tie the game for Penn State with 4.6 seconds on the clock.
In the timeout huddle, Crean drew up the same inbounds play that Indiana used to beat Kentucky on Christian Watford’s last-second shot in 2011.
There was, however, a small difference.
“We got open differently,” Crean said. “Usually, we run off a screen, but in this case we knew they’d switch it so James did a great job of setting it up and setting up a bounce cut. Thomas came under and got the screen. The whole key to things like that is you have a dribble per second. That play can be run anywhere from four (seconds) and above. (With) 4.6, that’s right about the cusp of it.
“He did a great job getting the ball out. They didn’t turn us, so we were able to get out and go on that screen. If we would’ve screened him to get free, that could’ve been a problem the way that they were switching. We made a decision to have him bounce. He got the ball out and he covered ground.”
And he made the shot with enough proper form to cleanly sink it.
Blackmon and Johnson combined to hit eight 3-pointers for Indiana, which also received nine rebounds from Bryant.
While that trio helped IU close the game, the Hoosiers’ freshman trio of Jones, Devonte Green and De’Ron Davis gave Indiana another important first-half spark.
Jones, Green and Davis combined for 12 first-half points, helping the Hoosiers to a 44-37 lead at the break.
At that point, in a locker room stunned by Anunoby’s injury, the Hoosiers were looking to regroup.
With 4.6 seconds remaining, that’s exactly what they did.
“We just knew we had to all step up as a collective group,” Bryant said. “When one of our guys goes down, we just all have to step up even more.”
Cue Blackmon, cue the shot and cue the win the Hoosiers required.