Equal parts exhaustion and relief coursed through Thomas Bryant’s mind at the end of one of the longest games in Indiana history.
There was Bryant, his arm draped around the back of teammate Robert Johnson as the two Hoosiers walked across the court buoyed by victory and accomplishment after Wednesday’s 110-102 triple-overtime win over Penn State. It could’ve been much worse — 55 minutes of basketball all for naught after Indiana nearly robbed itself of the opportunity to secure a valuable home win.
In a game of careless mistakes, absent defense and last-second wonder, the Hoosiers pulled themselves away from the brink of collapse and secured a victory they dearly needed.
“This was probably one of the longest games I’ve been a part of,” Bryant said. “But it felt so good with the win.”
On one hand, the win masks what was another wandering performance for the short-handed Hoosiers (15-8, 5-5 Big Ten), who played their fourth game without injured forward OG Anunoby and their second without injured leading scorer James Blackmon Jr.
On the other, Indiana’s remaining core of Thomas Bryant, Robert Johnson and Josh Newkirk responded with career-best performances, lifting their team when it needed assistance.
“There were numerous times that we could have won it,” IU coach Tom Crean said. “There were times that Penn State could have won it. There were times when we all could have lost it, and it really came down to a battle of wills.”
Bryant (31), Johnson (27) and Newkirk (27) each set new personal highs in scoring, as did freshman guard Devonte Green (10) in his second career start. Bryant, Johnson and Green all secured double-doubles with 11, 11 and 10 rebounds, respectively. Indiana’s last — and only other — triple overtime game was Feb. 16, 1987 at Wisconsin.
“I mean, we had enough time to do it,” Johnson said jovially about the career highs.
Newkirk’s buzzer-beating layup at the end of the first overtime forced a second extra period, but not before a lengthy official review. The shot only barely beat the buzzer to lock the game into a 80-all tie, sending the Penn State bench into a tizzy.
Later, Bryant’s eight points in the second overtime period supplied the Hoosiers with their second save of the night, while a fast start to the third extra frame helped Indiana build a 10-point advantage over the Nittany Lions (12-11, 4-6) with two minutes remaining, allowing IU to ride the advantage and snap a two-game losing skid ahead of Sunday’s game at Wisconsin.
“When you’re trying to build toughness and you’re trying to find an identity, and you’ve had your ups and downs and you’ve had your adversities — to have those guys play that way, to play those kind of minutes, to make those kind of plays, it was fantastic,” Crean said.
Just as the production from Bryant, Johnson and Newkirk was critical to Indiana’s ability to rescue itself in a game it led by as many as 13 points late in the first half, others were also there to answer in big moments.
De’Ron Davis hit a pair of free throws with 3.9 seconds left in regulation to secure a 72-72 tie and force overtime, and at the beginning of the third overtime, Green followed a Newkirk 3-pointer two minutes into the period with a steal and a bucket that put IU ahead 100-95.
“He grew up today and made some big plays, got a lot of key rebounds for us,” Newkirk said of Green. “It was big for him to come in, play that many minutes and be productive.”
Those were the magic moments that were otherwise balanced by the kinds of mistakes this Indiana team can’t seem to shake. Penn State hung around by hitting 10 3-pointers and scoring 24 points off 17 Indiana turnovers through the first 40 minutes.
While those flaws are simply part of who this team is, most importantly on Wednesday, the Hoosiers found the offensive pulse that had been missing during a two-game road swing through Michigan and Northwestern.
IU leaned on Bryant, found secondary scoring from Johnson, and perhaps most importantly, found a third option in Newkirk. Spurred by strong early play by Newkirk and Green, IU used a 9-0 run to build a 38-26 lead with 4:17 remaining in the first half. That advantage was acquired on a 3-pointer by Thomas Bryant, who retreated down the court and danced to the roars of the home crowd.
The rest of the night would be far less fun, and much more exhausting.
But at the end of it all, Indiana found value in the battle.
“We had some real growth tonight,” Crean said. “I’ve coached a long time. I hope I coach a while longer. But I will remember this one for the rest of my life, because watching them, from my vantage of going through what we go through and what we have been dealing with, and watching these guys that we’re trying to get to become more responsible for one another, lead through adversity, lead through the tough times and to see that happen, hopefully we’ll build on it.”