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Hoosiers learn from Illini loss

Ben Smith
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Associated Press

Indiana’s Jordan Hulls, left, keeps the ball away from Ohio State’s Shannon Scott during the first half Sunday.

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ninety long seconds to go. Jordan Hulls with the basketball. Jordan Hulls – ruh-roh – without the basketball.

And here it was, your post-teachable moment.

Here was the moment Sunday afternoon when you found out whether the teachable moment had taken, if you were an Indiana basketball team trying desperately to drag history across the finish line. Here it was, as Hulls and ball parted company and Aaron Craft picked it up like litter and deposited it in its proper receptacle, and a 12-point Indiana lead shrank to 10 points.

Safe but not safe, in other words. Safe because an IU team that played as well as it did this day wasn’t likely to snatch defeat from victory; unsafe because this same team proved Thursday that snatching defeat from victory wasn’t as hard as it looked.

Illinois was the object lesson, a victory given away in three minutes of carelessness. Ohio State was the lesson reflected upon, absorbed and then applied, as the Hoosiers wobbled momentarily and then closed the door on the No. 10 Buckeyes, 81-68.

“The game plan was followed,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said, and if that was a simple declaration there was nothing simple about its end result.

There was that history business, for one thing. Indiana hadn’t won in Columbus since George W. Bush was in the White House. It hadn’t beaten a Top 10 team anywhere on the road since Bill Clinton was there. Sunday, it either KO’d all that or slip back in a Big Ten race that, this season, is not going to allow any slipping back.

And so Hulls lost the ball and Craft cut it to 10, and the Soundtrack of Foreboding started up. And then, just as quickly, it fell silent.

Christian Watford muzzled it by stepping to the line and calmly splashing two free throws with 1:18 to play. Then Victor Oladipo, wrapping up his Player of the Year position paper (26 points, 8 rebounds, three assists, two steals), dropped two more.

And then Watford again. And then Oladipo. And good night, Ohio State.

Indiana, closing it out. Indiana, getting monster games from Watford and Oladipo and Cody Zeller, who combined for 70 points and 22 rebounds. Indiana, shooting 53 percent and giving up just 11 points off turnovers, instead of the 28 it gave up in Champaign.

If the Hoosiers can play better than this, their top end is stratospheric. If they can learn better than this, so is their learning curve.

After Thursday they came home, and for the next two days, practice was about closing out games. It was about being sharper and taking better care of the basketball, because when you stand on the gas as hard as Indiana does, turnovers are going to lead to points. It was about getting to the last five minutes and making them your own.

And then it was all about proving the teachable moment had taken.

“It’s one thing to talk it as a coach, it’s one thing to see it on film,” Crean said. “But it’s a whole other thing when they absorb it. And they absorbed that we got away from what we were doing.”

Yes, the Hoosiers did. And acted accordingly.

“The last five minutes were very important to us, playing to win and not just playing for time to run out,” Zeller said. “Keep playing to win.”

They did. And when it was done, Buckeyes Deshaun Thomas and Evan Ravenel and Aaron Craft trudged into the postgame news conference.

Someone asked what the difference was. Specifically, the difference in Indiana.

“They kept their composure,” Craft said. “They made shots, they made big shots, and they just kept on going.”

To the very end, this time.

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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