BLOOMINGTON – Two thousand one hundred sixty.
That's how many days it had been since Indiana had beaten Purdue, a nearly six-year span that featured nine straight Boilermaker victories in one of the fiercest rivalries in college sports. That counter likely would have reached 2,161 if not for Rob Phinisee, who poured in a career-high 20 points and drilled a game-winning 3 with 16.9 seconds left in the 68-65 Hoosiers win over the No. 4 Boilers at Assembly Hall tonight.
Phinisee's performance came just hours after he had a heart-to-heart talk with coach Mike Woodson in which Woodson emphasized his belief in his senior point guard.
"The Basketball Gods were looking down upon us because I thought after our conversation, he responded, man," Woodson said. "It's nice to see. When you got a coach/player relationship with these guys, sometimes you've got to have a man-to-man talk, and that's what happened hours before the game, and he responded."
This was the Rob Phinisee the Hoosiers thought they were getting when they signed him in the 2018 recruiting class alongside Romeo Langford: a point guard with high-level guarding ability and enough shooting touch to make defenses pay attention. After two essentially lost seasons, Phinisee found his way tonight. If he can play even close to this level, the Hoosiers have a weapon off the bench who could make that second unit go and make Woodson feel far more comfortable giving his starters some needed breathers.
"Hell, if the bench is rolling, I'm going to ride them until their tongues fall out," Woodson said, laughing. "I thought tonight they was doing it in the first half (when Indiana went on a 14-0 run that saw nine of the points scored by the bench), so I stuck with them as long as I could."
But this game was more than just Phinisee. It was one of the most complete performances the Hoosiers have put together in years. It started inauspiciously, with Purdue racing out to a 16-8 lead and Zach Edey drawing two quick fouls on All-American Trayce Jackson-Davis, sending the 2019 Indiana Mr. Basketball to the bench. Indiana has looked extremely rough without Jackson-Davis on the court this season, but it raced ahead of the Boilermakers with its star sitting tonight, mostly on the back of Phinisee and a stifling defense that forced a spate of Purdue turnovers and got Indiana out in transition.
Indiana's defense came into the game No. 2 in the country in opponent field goal percentage at 36.5%, but it had not been tested by a truly elite offensive team yet. Purdue is that type of team, coming into the game as the No. 3 shooting squad in the country at 50.2%. It turns out, the Hoosiers' defense is the real deal. After a couple of early breakdowns led to Purdue 3-pointers, Indiana buckled down and held the Boilers scoreless for 4:44 late in the first half. The Hoosiers' pressure, combined with the waves of noise cascading down on it from the Assembly Hall faithful, left Purdue out of sorts.
"They're a good defensive team and they just took us out of being able to run anything there for a while," Boilermakers coach Matt Painter said.
While Phinisee will get the headlines, this game was actually a showcase across the board of the type of point guard play Woodson wants. He has been harping on the need for better leadership from Phinisee and Xavier Johnson and they provided exactly what he was looking for tonight, combining for 38 points and zero turnovers. Johnson, who has struggled with turnovers on and off this season, scored 18 points on 7-of-17 shooting and while he was ever so slightly out of control a few times in the final minutes (Indiana's one poor offensive stretch of the game, when it went 4:22 without a point), his slashing ability was one of the keys to opening up Indiana's offense early in the game and he made some outstanding finishes around the rim.
Another transfer who deserves a ton of credit is 7-foot Hoosiers center Michael Durr. The former South Florida big man played a season-high 24 minutes, getting the bulk of the playing time with Jackson-Davis, who only played 11 minutes, in foul trouble. Durr wasn't much of an offensive producer, but he held his own defensively against Purdue's Zach Edey better than almost anyone this season and he posted two blocks and two steals to support the Indiana defensive effort. When Woodson set about remaking Indiana's roster upon taking the head coach job in March, he knew he needed he needed point guard and center depth. He went out and found both and the Hoosiers would not have won tonight without those moves.
"Before the game I told Mike (Durr), "It's going to be your day," Johnson said. "Mike was going to be ready to play. Coach (Woodson) told him that he was going to go to him and be ready. For a player not to play as much as he has been in the past and to come out here and compete with those guys in a top 5 team in the nation, it shows a lot."
Going into this game, Indiana's season outlook was still very cloudy. The Hoosiers seemed to be improved from the past several seasons, but whether they had really progressed enough to compete for an NCAA Tournament bid was an open question. That question was answered in the affirmative tonight. Indiana is by no means a lock for a spot in the field of 68, but it has a signature win against a top 5 opponent, is sitting at 14-4 and 5-3 in Big Ten play and seems to be gaining momentum and confidence as the season wears on.
When the fans stormed the court following the final buzzer, it felt like a junior version of the victory over No. 1 Kentucky in 2011 that ended with Christian Watford's game-winning shot. Indiana did not fall as far in the past few seasons as it did from 2008 to 2010, but it was still off the college basketball radar. After tonight, that's no longer the case.
Is Indiana a better team than the Boilermakers? Probably not; Purdue remains one of the nation's best groups and is still a Final Four contender. But for one night, Indiana made the plays necessary to beat a team of that caliber. That's different and it's progress to build upon.
This is the start.