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Ben Smith

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Crunch time is Zeller time for Indiana

– They still lean on the kid, and there’s your lockdown truth for today. Cody Zeller can vanish like smoke at times or hibernate or get so crosswise with the rim you think they’re never going to make nice again, and you know what happens?

What happens is he winds up 30 feet from the rim with 1:38 to go in a knife fight with Michigan State, and – how’d this happen? – the game is on his racket.

What happens, on Sunday afternoon, is he stands out there with the ball in his hands, and he makes his move from somewhere down toward Bedford, and he drives hard down the left side of the lane. Daylight opens up, as if commanded by the gods. And Zeller, 1-of-6 from the floor and quiet as prayer time in church for most of this mad Sunday, gets all the way to the glass and massages the layup off the glass and in.

Indiana leads, 74-70. Indiana goes on to win, 75-70.

And if it doesn’t happen without Victor Oladipo’s shout-out-loud day – 21 points, seven rebounds, six steals, three blocks – or Yogi Ferrell’s 11 points or Will Sheehey’s three triples and lockdown “D,” it doesn’t happen without Zeller, either, quiet or not. Sooner or later, it always comes to Zeller, in big ways and small. Even when you don’t see it happening, Indiana looks to him.

“People might say he’s had a bad game or two games or whatever, but he’s been phenomenal for us,” Oladipo insisted Sunday.

“He’s always impacted the game, since day one he got here. Which was before I got here,” Ferrell agreed.

And so, yes, Zeller scores, and Indiana leads 74-70, and in the end, with Assembly Hall at full crimson shout, the Hoosiers show Michigan State the door in as big and as fierce and as impeccably played a game as January ever sees.

Michigan State made 11 threes in this one; Indiana made eight.

The Hoosiers shot 60 percent in the first half and a tick under 51 for the game. The Spartans made 11 steals; Indiana, nine.

“This was a game of adjustments, and that’s what it was the entire game,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said. “For us to get this win in this environment and to make the plays we made, especially at the end of the game, I thought that was huge.”

And for Indiana to be huge, Zeller had to be huge, too, at least when it mattered. A lot of keys fit this lock, but Zeller’s remains the master key. If that wasn’t already abundantly obvious before it certainly is now.

Yes, Oladipo was impeccable and Jordan Hulls turned the ball over just twice while running a ferocious floor game, and Ferrell and Sheehey and Christian Watford (12 points, six boards) did what they did. But in the end, Zeller had to rise up – and Zeller did.

Got his only blocked shot of the game with 2:13 to play and Indiana leading by a bucket. Drove hard for the layup at the other end, his second and last field goal of the day. Grabbed his seventh and last rebound at the other end with 1:10 showing; sealed it by drawing a charge on Michigan State behemoth Adreian Payne with 14 seconds left.

“It was winning time, and Cody answered the bell,” Crean said.

A pause.

“He rang the bell.”

And Michigan State, which came in packing six straight wins and a 6-1 record in the Big Ten, was counted out. Big on big, especially with Purdue and Michigan coming up this week. Big on big – and, no, it doesn’t happen without Zeller, with his modest nine-point, seven-rebound stat line and its gaudy consequences.

“He’s so non-statistic driven,” Crean said. “That’s why he’s such a winner.”

Lockdown truth.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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