BLOOMINGTON – Indiana finally has a Big Ten win, but it didn't come easy.
More than a few times in the second half tonight, it seemed as though IU would be able to cruise to its first Big Ten victory, but a game Penn State team just kept coming and Sam Sessoms kept hitting big shots to inch the Nittany Lions closer. In the end, the Hoosiers needed a questionable foul call in the final 10 seconds to even reach overtime and a desperation fadeaway on a broken play from Rob Phinisee in the extra session to win it, 87-85.
A win is a win and the Hoosiers will take it, but there's no indication that this team has figured anything out in the long term. If anything, this game is more cause for concern on defense after the Nittany Lions shot 48%, including 7 for 13 from long distance in the second half, and erased a 12-point deficit in the final minutes of regulation. This is the second time in three games that Indiana's defense has not been up to the standard that it set early in the season.
"Defensively, our whole team has taken a step back," coach Archie Miller said. "We've dialed our defense back a little bit. ... We're going to have to buckle down. This is going to be a film where we're going to be happy with some things offensively, but defensively I think we're going to be a little disappointed. We're just not going to be able to score 87 points every game and we know that."
The defensive performance wasn't really good enough to win, but it happened to coincide with the Hoosiers' best offensive game in weeks. Indiana had a size advantage against Penn State and it got into the lane again and again on its way to 50 points in the paint to just 28 for the Nittany Lions. Trayce Jackson-Davis led the way with 21 points on only 13 shots, scoring despite constant attention from the Penn State defense. He had a huge 3-point play to put the Hoosiers ahead in regulation and looked to attack the basket most of the time he got the ball. If anything, the Hoosiers didn't look for him often enough (though it wasn't easy to enter the ball to him when Penn State usually had two or three defenders in the vicinity). As good as Phinisee's game-winning shot was, the play was broken because Indiana tried to get the ball to Al Durham or Armaan Franklin for the winning shot and the Nittany Lions blew up the play. Durham and Franklin had good nights, but with the game on the line, the ball should be forced into your best player. The Nittany Lions had no answer for him. Let him bring the ball up if you have to.
Still, it was encouraging to see the Hoosiers get offensive contributions from all over the roster. Durham had 18 points, including a couple of 3-pointers during a big second-half run and Franklin had 16 on 5-for-9 shooting. Most encouraging was the play of Phinisee and Trey Galloway. Phinisee not only hit the game-winning shot, but made a huge second-half 3, assisted on one of Durham's shots from long range and finished with 11 points, three blocks and a steal. He blocked Sessoms' game-winning 3-point attempt at the end of regulation, which will be an underrated play from this game.
"When Rob's engaged and in the groove of the game, he's as good of an on-ball defender as you're going to play against," Miller said. "He's done it since his freshman year. He's guarded the best player on the (opposing) team, realistically, 85% of the time. When we were starting to get thick out there tonight, we needed him in a big way. ... Rob is sort of the pulse of our team, in a way."
Galloway, meanwhile, played arguably the best game of any IU freshman this season, scoring 10 points, dishing five assists and grabbing four rebounds. He's a playmaker in the purest sense of the word, making the right play often and making other players around him better. He's the most aggressive slasher going to the basket Indiana has and he could be one of this team's most important pieces. The future is bright for the kid from Culver Academies.
"He was fantastic in terms of his play-making," Miller said of Galloway. "And that's what Trey is. I think he's shown here recently as he's gotten more minutes and he's gotten more confident, he's a terrific playmaker. He's as good of a playmaker, especially at his age in this type of competition as I've seen. He's fearless in terms of putting the ball on the floor and getting to places and getting it to people."
It's a little difficult to know what to make of this game. Should we be optimistic about the terrific offensive performance, albeit against a team that didn't have the size to stop the Hoosiers? Should we be pessimistic about the defense and rebounding (Indiana lost the battle on the boards 34-26 and gave up 13 offensive rebounds) and worried that it took overtime at home to beat one of the teams likely to finish at the bottom of the Big Ten? I think the answer lies in what I wrote before the game: Indiana wasn't going to prove much with a win tonight, but a loss would have been devastating. The Hoosiers didn't lose and they'll have a chance to win against some better teams going forward.