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The Journal Gazette

  • Indiana forward Justin Smith scored 15 points and grabbed seven rebounds in a 92-74 win over Illinois on Thursday. The win was the Hoosiers' third straight. (AP Photo/Stephen Haas)

Thursday, March 07, 2019 11:50 pm

Indiana tops Illinois, keeps NCAA hopes alive

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – No one can accuse Indiana of peaking too early.

The Hoosiers are playing some of their best basketball of the season at exactly the right time, piling up three victories in a row just as the NCAA selection committee is looking for teams to make their case. 

Indiana was eloquent and concise in trying to sway any influential committee members that might have been watching the Hoosiers' 92-74 offensive tour de force against Illinois on the road.

"Choose us," Indiana might as well have said. "We're not afraid of anyone and our offense can hang points on even the most intense defenses in a hurry."

The Hoosiers were so good on Thursday that they reduced the Illinois student section, usually one of the loudest in the conference, to poking fun at Archie Miller's semi-diminutive stature. There were no turnover-fueled Illini runs to get the crowd into the game, no shot-clock violations cause by Illinois' relentless pressure. Despite the Illini's best efforts, the Hoosiers were poised and ready. The seven turnovers they committed were the fewest a team has had against Illinois this season.

At the center of that was point guard Robert Phinisee, who had perhaps his best game as a Hoosier. The freshman poured in a career-high 17 points, dished five assists, didn't turn the ball over and was generally excellent all around. He put his head down and got to the rim in a way we haven't seen often from him this season and he seems to have his confidence all the way back after losing his rhythm for a while because of the head injury he sustained in December.

"He's poised and he's very strong with the ball," Miller said. "He's safe. He doesn't care for the highlight-reel play. Sometimes he misses the guy he's supposed to (go) to just because he's playing it safe, but he's a true point guard in the sense he takes care of the ball. He tries to run our team. You're starting to see the guy that at the beginning of the season was making a lot of plays for us."

Having another guard to share the load with Romeo Langford is huge for Indiana, which has struggled with depth issues all season. Now that the Hoosiers are finally healthy again, it seems like depth might be a strength down the stretch as the games get more intense and physical. The Hoosiers had six players score at least nine points in this one, a positive sign as the Big Ten Tournament approaches.

Another positive sign is the Hoosiers' continued intensity. For the fifth straight game, they played with purpose on offense and defense, matching Illinois' energy and getting to more than their share of 50/50 balls. It's a frankly surprising run of consistency for a team that spent most of the season looking for a spark on any given night, wondering whether it would have the energy to even stay in the game, much less win. Those questions – for now at least – have been put to bed and Indiana is playing the way Miller wants: tough, aggressive and strong. 

"The way we prepared this week and the way we came down here, we've been the same team," the coach said. "We haven't really gotten too high or too low in the last three weeks and the key going into Sunday (against Rutgers) will be can we be the same team that we were coming here. That's the whole key."

The one player who deserves the most credit for that turnaround is Juwan Morgan. The senior floundered in January and February, not personally, but in his leadership role. It was obvious he was trying everything he could think of to motivate his team as the losses piled up and he certainly led by example, leaving everything on the floor most nights. As much blame as he deserved then, he deserves that much praise now that this team has seemingly turned a corner. He was a monster on offense tonight, tying Illinois in knots down low with 20 points, 18 in the paint, and nine rebounds. He was the best player on the floor tonight.

"It's a different mindset amongst everybody," Morgan said of the difference during the current run of success. "We really aren't going out there without giving 100 percent. Along that losing streak, people were getting into themselves, trying to figure out what they could do, instead of finding out what they needed to do for the team. 

"As we kept going on and on, everybody got back to that realization that they need to do what's best for the team and with that, we'll win."

Did the selection committee hear that? They should. For the first in months, Indiana is speaking loud and clear.

dsinn@jg.net