MADISON, Wis. — Sloppy at times, downright ugly at others, Sunday’s trip to Wisconsin ended like so many others for Indiana.
But even on a day of sub-optimal basketball on both sides, the short-handed Hoosiers showed some toughness.
It wasn’t enough to avoid a 65-60 loss to the No. 10 Badgers before an announced crowd of 17,287 at Kohl Center, extending the Hoosiers’ Madison losing streak to 15 consecutive games, dating back to 1998.
Yet, Sunday demonstrated that Indiana holds a valuable measure of fight as a critical month of February continues.
“We needed to bring aggressiveness to the game,” IU coach Tom Crean said. “We had a lot of deflections, we were very active and at the end of the day, a couple possessions didn’t go our way. A couple possessions went their way, but our guys were in a great battle mindset. They’ve been that way.”
Indiana (15-9, 5-6 Big Ten) can lament its 15 turnovers — off of which Wisconsin scored 16 points, or 10 more than IU scored off Badger miscues. IU can point to missed shots, especially from 3-point range, and a large free throw discrepancy as root causes for its third loss in the past four games.
There will also be solace found in the fact that the Hoosiers brought a 40-minute battle to a building where Wisconsin (20-3, 9-1) hasn’t lost in 13 games this season.
Peace may also be found in the hope that help may be around the corner.
Although James Blackmon Jr. missed his third consecutive game, the Indiana leading scorer dressed and participated in pregame warmups Sunday. Crean said on pregame radio that Blackmon hasn’t practiced since getting hurt in the loss at Michigan on Jan. 26. Sunday’s pregame stretches and shooting appeared to be the most activity Blackmon has completed, suggesting that his health is improving.
Indiana returns to action on Thursday night against No. 23 Purdue at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.
“Look at what we’re playing without,” Crean said. “If you throw Collin (Hartman) in there, if you take James Blackmon Jr. and you put OG Anunoby in there, we’re playing without 35 points and 15 rebounds every time we step out there right now. You throw that on top of the fact that you’re playing against the most experienced team in the country, and you can’t just go out there and allow them to play the way they want to play.”
In many ways, Indiana didn’t allow that to happen.
This was one of the most encouraging defensive performances of the Big Ten season for the Hoosiers, who pressured passers, forced Wisconsin into disjointed possessions and made the Badgers work for baskets.
Wisconsin, one of the worst free throw percentage teams in the conference, took advantage of ample opportunities at the line, hitting 23 of its 31 foul shots.
Indiana, meanwhile, was 11-for-12 at the line.
Josh Newkirk led all scorers with 22 points, while Ethan Happ led Wisconsin with 20 points.
Newkirk ended an early-game shooting slump for the Hoosiers, putting Indiana on the board with a 3-pointer at the 14:46 mark. It was IU’s first made basket in its initial seven attempts.
Indiana never led Sunday, watching Wisconsin build its first-half lead to as many as 12 points midway through the period. But the Hoosiers buckled down during the final eight minutes of the half, connecting their play on both ends of the court.
A 14-2 Indiana run tied the game 24-all with 2:30 remaining, allowing the Hoosiers to enter the intermission trailing only 27-24.
“We have to build on this defensive effort,” said Robert Johnson, who played all 20 minutes of the second half. “We did a good job of carrying out some of the things we wanted to do. Offensively, we just have to continue to try and make the simple play.”
Johnson brought the Hoosiers as close as two points with a step-back jumper midway through the period. Ensuing post feeds to De’Ron Davis helped ensure Indiana didn’t fall too far behind as Wisconsin’s three best players — Happ, Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig — found the basket.
With his team leading 52-48 coming out of the final media timeout, Zak Showalter gave IU an opening when he missed a pair of free throws. Indiana, however, couldn’t immediately capitalize.
A turnover by Newkirk and a baseline block by Happ, who called time out as he fell out of bounds, helped keep the Hoosiers at an arm’s length.
Newkirk did engineer one final push, hitting a pair of 3-pointers in the final 41 seconds — the second of which made it a three-point game with 1.3 seconds to go.
Wisconsin, meanwhile, made the timely free throws — hitting five of its final six attempts — that sealed the Badgers’ win.
It wasn’t the result the Hoosiers wanted, of course, but the full portrait of Sunday’s performance in Wisconsin revealed a team that is still willing to fight as an important stretch run approaches.
“Our battle and our compete level was really, really high,” Crean said, “and that’s what’s most important right now to build from.”