Hoosiers score 92-74 runaway victory at Illinois

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — To begin a must-win, two-game stretch to close the regular season, Indiana handled pressure in its various forms.

There was the tangible pressure of Illinois’ frenetic, in-your-face defensive style. Then there was the pressure from the weight of the moment. The stakes are clear for an IU team that has no room for error in its pursuit of an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

In a runaway 92-74 victory over the Illini, the Hoosiers managed it all with ease.

That was the most surprising development of Thursday’s contest, which was Indiana’s third consecutive victory. During a season where little has been painless, the Hoosiers (16-14, 7-12) coasted to an all-important victory.

It suggests that this Indiana team, battered and bruised both physically and mentally through the teeth of Big Ten play, has hit its stride at the proper time. Suddenly, Indiana is back in the conversation to go dancing for the first time since 2016, a feat that merely weeks ago seemed out of the question.

The Hoosiers are healthy, deep and poised to atone for the mistakes and slumps that seemed to doom them during the doldrums of winter.

There’s more work to be done, but Thursday was a crucial checkpoint in IU’s postseason pursuit.

“We’re definitely playing better than we were,” IU coach Archie Miller said. “Even in some of our losses here in the last couple weeks, we’ve been playing better. Hard-fought games, we’ve been in a lot of them.”

Indiana’s trip to Illinois was not as challenging as so many others have been this season. At least, it didn’t appear to be. If not for Illinois’ 10 3-pointers, this never would’ve been a ballgame.

It hardly was.

Credit IU’s poise against Illinois’ pressure defense in a game where the Hoosiers committed only seven turnovers. Consider that the Illini (11-19, 7-12) are forcing opponents, on average, into 16.4 errors per contest, and it was one of the best offensive performances of the season against an Illinois team known for its harassing style.

“To only turn it over seven times in here was a surprise, to be honest with you,” Miller said. “But we scored.”

IU did so in balanced bunches, finishing with five players in double figures.

Juwan Morgan led Indiana with 20 points, while Rob Phinisee added 17 for the Hoosiers, who host Rutgers for Senior Day on Sunday at noon. Justin Smith scored 15 points, while Devonte Green posted 11 and Romeo Langford finished with 10.

For the Hoosiers, seldom has their offense looked so fluid. They settled for too many 3-point looks early in regulation — drawing Miller’s ire from the bench — but eventually transitioned into a consistent attack mode that allowed them to finish with 52 points in the paint.

“These guys force you to take 3s or layups,” Miller said. “With the way that their defense is set up, with the overplaying and all the pressure, you’ve got to put the ball on the floor. I thought our spacing was pretty good and I thought our guys did a decent job of being able to get all the way to the basket. And the second part of that was, De’Ron (Davis) and Juwan also did a good job establishing themselves with some post-ups and some easy ones in the first half as well. Transition opportunities off our defense created some more layups. But it was more along the lines of how you have to attack them.”

And attack, the Hoosiers did.

Indiana assisted on 12 of its 22 field goals in the first half, while committing only two errors in that span. By halftime, the Hoosiers totaled their most points (52) in an opening period since dumping 53 on Chicago State in the season opener.

Spurred by back-to-back 3-pointers, IU used a 13-2 run midway through the first period to take a 26-18 lead approaching the under-8 timeout.

Indiana never looked back.

Credit, too, the steadiness of Phinisee at the point. Phinisee organized the charge, and in doing so, the freshman illustrated just how much the Hoosiers missed his consistency and steady hands during the first half of Big Ten play.

The concussion he suffered in mid-December seemed to derail his season. Until recently, Phinisee has hardly resembled the same player he was during the non-conference season, but in recent weeks, he’s been one of the chief catalysts to IU’s late-season surge.

“I can’t say enough great things about him,” Morgan said. “I kept telling him when he had the ball, if he had a lane, forget the play and we were gonna make things happen. He did exactly that. I think he had four or five assists with no turnovers. He was just a great point guard tonight.”

To handle Illinois’ pressure, which arrived through man and zone sets, suggests as much about Phinisee.

But Phinisee wasn’t the only one who thrived in the stress of the moment. With backs against the wall and the stakes clearly spelled out of them, the Hoosiers answered the call.

They must do so again on Sunday at Rutgers, the next checkpoint in a late-season run that has once again fueled hope. Indiana found life through the energy it mustered in narrow losses to Purdue and Iowa last month, then found a payoff in last week’s victories over Wisconsin and Michigan State.

Now the Hoosiers are looking for more — managing the pressure of the late-season stage and positioning themselves for a fight to the finish.

“I thought the way we prepared this week and the way we came down here, we’ve been the same team,” Miller said. “We haven’t gotten too high or too low in the last month; maybe the past three weeks. The big key going into Sunday will be can we just be the same team that we were coming here. That’s the whole key.”

9 comments

  1. I realize this was against a bad Illinois team, but IU played an outstanding offensive game. I couldn’t believe these were the same players we have been watching all season. They moved the ball well, spaced the floor effectively and made shots. Congratulations to the team for a great performance.

  2. Incredible passing.

    I think the expressions of dramatic improvement by Illinois were a bit over the top.

    Great win by the Hoosiers.

  3. Phinisee: Clinic.

    Speaking of over the top…during the doom and gloom of having no viable point guard. Those who didn’t listen to me with regard to just how important Phinisee was to this team can now reflect.

    He was beyond key to so many things working…..Just an exceptional game. Probably the best point guard performance I’ve seen from a Hoosier in three decades. Complete game tonight. 7 TOTAL turnovers. Did you hear that, Tom Crean? 7 TOTAL turnovers. All made solid contributions. Phinisee did everything right.
    Healthy Phinisee = Dangerous Hoosiers.

  4. Let’s keep in mind….That was a freshman point guard playing that poised in a “must win” game. A freshman point guard who had 1/3 of his season complete knocked offtrack from a severe concussion.

    Nice games from Smith and Green again as well. Some very sweet turnaround jumpers on the baseline from Smith….along with really good activity on the boards….and another highlight reel slam off a Green assist on a breakaway.

    Great dominance from Morgan as well….But you’ve gotta have the guy who sets the table..and we have that again in Phinisee. Kid moves in and out of defenses like a pinball in dancing off bumpers….The back-cut action was exceptional tonight too. Archie has them moving and learning….

    Take care of business on Sunday and we are back in the hunt….

  5. It never hurts to have your one true point guard healthy and running at full speed again. It also doesn’t hurt that he happens to be a very good one in the making. In the future we’re all going to probably look back at this year and shed tears over what the record could have been if everyone had stayed healthy. Testament to the tenacity of this team to still be in there fighting after all the adversity.

  6. Yes, great win for the Hoosiers, especially on the road. Where the hell has that offense been for the last six weeks? Glad it showed up last night and I hope it stays around for the rest of the season.

    If we continue to play offense like that, we might play a game or two in the NCAA Tournament, or we could make a deep run in the NIT. Which would be better for the future of Archie’s program? Playing one or two games in the NCAA Tournament or making a deep run in (and maybe even winning) the NIT?

    1. Three or four wks ago I was tired of watching and felt the team had called the season over. IF play over the next 2 – 3 games mimic the last few games they could cause some damage in the NCAA. NIT, whatever at this point. Still not sure of what we got but looking better.

  7. This team is on a very unusual cusp of sorts….I think they have more potential to go very deep in the NCAA tournament than their chances at going deep in the Big Ten Tournament..or NIT.

    We lost a very important meat of our Big Ten season because of the repercussions surrounding the loss of our point guard(games and return to health/confidence). The NCAA won’t consider why we had the huge losing skid….but it’s really pretty obvious after witnessing what our healthy and incredibly talented point guard can bring to a whole team.

    Harvard for Hillbillies says:
    January 20, 2019 at 2:32 pm

    There’s a lot of season yet to be unfolded. A lot of track ahead. I’m not ready to throw our team to the wolves.
    What appears disjointed and lost at this juncture could look a lot different in six weeks.
    We played @ Purdue. Our top player was basically removed from having an impact in an entire half.
    Our point guard is still not anything near 100% back from a serious concussion.
    Yesterday, Steve Lavin headed up an excellent discussion on Fox Sports (I believe it was in a college pregame) expressing just how much the derailing of a point guard will derail a team….It was really interesting…Wish I could find someway to retrieve his discussion. We were derailed of our most essential component in running a team. Phinisee powers the Hoosier locomotion….(anyone “liking” Purdue should understand trains).

    Big Positive: Justin Smith showed some game….and I don’t think he flexed any muscles.

    So, there’s your answer to …”Where the hell has that offense been for the last six weeks?” Did you notice the zero turnovers from our backcourt? Phinisee’s stud-like poise and control of the ball …may becoming contagious. Let’s hope.

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