A standing ovation greeted the Hoosiers at the first media timeout, serving as a nod to the urgency Indiana channeled when it needed to most.
This was no sleepy beginning, nor was it a repeat of the ambling early-game performance IU authored only four days earlier. For at least four game-opening minutes, the best version of Indiana reappeared — and not a moment too soon.
The Hoosiers were connected and poised on both ends of the floor, racing to a sizable early advantage that fed a 96-80 victory over Illinois on Saturday evening.
In a season that has already produced a series of crests and troughs for Indiana, Saturday served in part as a reminder of how potent the Hoosiers (11-5, 1-2) can be. Now, IU’s next objective is to spin what it did well against a middle of the road Big Ten team into some important January momentum.
Against the Illini (11-5, 1-2), the Hoosiers hit 13 3-pointers, assisted on 22 of their 29 made baskets and recorded 37 first-half deflections after posting 38 in each of the past two games.
“At the beginning of the game, everything was clicking in the sense the ball was moving, we were connected defensively, we were getting out on the break, and we were figuring it out,” IU coach Tom Crean said. “Whether it was man or zone we were figuring it out with our cutting, we were figuring it out with the post up and we were getting good shots.”
In a game that saw a combined 49 fouls rob the affair of any flow in the second half, Indiana’s 15-0 run to start the game was important both in terms of the final result and for what it did affirming IU’s mental edge. The Hoosiers moved with purpose on both ends of the floor, snapping a three-game losing streak ahead of Tuesday’s game at Maryland.
James Blackmon Jr. scored a team-high 25 points for IU, while Robert Johnson added 18 points. After the past week and a half saw the two mired in a funk, Blackmon and Johnson combined to shoot 14-for-23 from the field.
“It gives us a big boost out there on the court because when those guys are hitting, it opens a lot more stuff up for me, OG (Anunoby), the bench,” Thomas Bryant said. “And they have to put so much time and effort on those two, it opens up the floor that much for all of us.”
Bryant certainly benefited Saturday, scoring 16 of his 20 points in the second half, while finishing 6-for-6 from the field and hitting a pair of 3-pointers. His second 3-pointer came at a critical moment late in the second half after an Illinois surge got the Illini within nine points. But Bryant stepped up, sank the shot and helped make sure IU secured the win.
There were moments late when lapses of the last week and a half reappeared, but the early run helped IU create the necessary separation.
Indiana led by as many as 22 points midway through the opening period, while Illinois struggled to mount a pushback. The Illini began the game 0-for-8 from the field and didn’t score their first points until Jalen Coleman-Lands knocked down a pair of free throws six minutes into the game. It took another 30 seconds before Illinois found its first field goal, but by then, it was a 17-5 Indiana advantage.
Illinois found itself buried, too, without leading scorer Malcolm Hill, who picked up his third foul 3:31 into the game.
“We’re happy about our effort and how we came out from the beginning,” Blackmon said. “That’s one thing we’ve got to keep working on. We’ve just got to maintain. … I think it was a mentality thing. We were talking a lot more. Guys were engaged and helping each other out. And then when we get stops like that we get out and run it.”
After building a 48-29 halftime lead, the Hoosiers didn’t consistently transfer the same defensive intent to the second half. Illinois poured in 22 points in the first eight minutes of the final period, finding the rim against little resistance. Of Illinois’ 30 points in the paint, 24 came in the second half.
Illinois’ second-half push got it as close as nine points when Coleman-Lands sank a 3-pointer with 5:41 to play. But then came Bryant with his 3-pointer, boosting Indiana’s lead back to double digits. Meanwhile, the Illini made only one field goal the rest of the way, allowing the Hoosiers to hold on for their first victory of conference play.
“They never lost confidence, and I never saw that head drop, and that was so important for a young team,” Crean said. “I know you’re not in the huddles. It’s so important when you have a young team, they don’t start having self doubt and talking to themselves, doubting and talking to themselves, saying it’s not going right. We didn’t have any of that.”
So Indiana was rewarded with the win, and a big round of applause.