COLUMBUS, Ohio — This was Robert Johnson’s act of defiance.
A personal shooting slump dogged the Indiana junior guard throughout the month of February, turning a once-reliable secondary scorer into a player searching for his former self.
The past few weeks saw Johnson lifting shots into the air to little avail, searching for a breakthrough in games, during practices and virtually all points in between. Then, in Saturday’s regular season finale at Ohio State, Johnson found the reward he had been hunting.
Johnson’s 26 points helped the Hoosiers hold off the Buckeyes, 96-92, in a victory that gives Indiana hope of securing the No. 10 seed and a single bye when the Big Ten Tournament begins next week in Washington, D.C. Indiana (17-14, 7-11) will have to wait and see what Nebraska does at home tonight against Michigan before it knows its exact itinerary for the trip east.
Should the Cornhuskers lose, IU will clinch the No. 10 seed and open the conference tournament on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. against the No. 7 seed — potentially Michigan or Iowa. If Nebraska wins, Indiana will be the No. 11 seed and open the postseason on Wednesday at 7 p.m. against No. 14 Rutgers.
The win over the Buckeyes (17-14, 7-11) brought a small dose of much-needed momentum for the Hoosiers, who had to rally late after blowing an 18-point, first-half lead.
C.J. Jackson’s 3-pointer at the 11:37 mark of the second period gave Ohio State its first advantage of the day at 62-61. Moments later, Indiana responded.
Spurred by five points each from Johnson and Juwan Morgan, IU authored a 10-0 run to create the separation it needed to reclaim the lead and hold off another Buckeye scare in the waning moments.
Johnson, like his team at large, responded when needed.
“We’re a get-well card for guys,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. “You’re struggling? Play Ohio State and get out of your slump just like that. It’s been that way all season. He was tremendous.”
Johnson had been mired in a 7-for-42 funk from 3-point range during his previous eight games, but connected on five deep shots against the Buckeyes. He finished one point shy of tying his career high — set in a triple overtime win against Penn State earlier this season — grabbed six rebounds and dished six assists against zero turnovers.
“You could say that he was due, and you’d be right,” Crean said. “It’s just an anomaly that he has not played as well with his shooting, and it’s heartbreaking sometimes when he’s missing shots because outside of James Blackmon and Rob — and Josh Newkirk would be in this group, too — those three work so much extra on their shooting, almost to the point of, just relax.”
Johnson hit each of his first six field goal attempts, including a trio of 3-pointers to record 15 points in his first 11 minutes on the floor.
Indiana got off to an 11-0 start, featuring 3-pointers from Johnson, Blackmon and Newkirk. IU moved the ball well in the opening minutes, recording five assists on its first eight field goals and hitting five 3-pointers in the first five minutes of action. All told, IU made 13 of its first 15 field goal attempts, while committing only one turnover in the first eight minutes.
In a topsy-turvy performance from the Hoosiers, Johnson was a featured component when Indiana was at its best.
“I think my teammates did a good job of finding me and getting me involved early,” he said. “I just wanted to come out aggressive and try to attack.”
That aggressiveness was contagious, and it allowed the Hoosiers to build a 54-40 halftime lead — their highest first-half point total in conference play.
Quickly, however, that advantage disappeared.
For as poor as Ohio State played for large swaths of Saturday’s game, the worst version of Indiana resurfaced to start the second half. The on- and off-ball movement that was present for IU at the start of the game disappeared, just as old wounds were reopened.
The Buckeyes outscored the Hoosiers 13-3 in the first 4:35 of the period before Jackson’s 3-pointer four minutes later gave Ohio State its first lead of the day.
That’s when Johnson and Morgan responded — Johnson with a pull-up and a 3, Morgan with a couple layups, including an and-one that helped IU take a 74-64 lead with 6:51 to play.
“They’re a good team, so we knew they were going to fight back at halftime,” Blackmon said. “We just had to withstand that and come together and finish it out.”
Indiana was able to do so, in part, because it managed a delicate foul situation with care. Morgan and Thomas Bryant each finished with four fouls, while four others carried three. No Hoosier, however, picked up a fifth.
Ohio State did manage to give IU a scare in the final minute of regulation, getting within four points on three occasions before a 3 from Jackson narrowed the score at 94-92 with three seconds to play.
Blackmon made both of his ensuing free throws, and the Hoosiers made their way home with a win they — and Johnson — could feel good about.