BLOOMINGTON – On the brink of a potentially devastating home loss, Indiana dug in.
Facing Northwestern, the only remaining winless team in Big Ten play, the Hoosiers trailed by 10 with less than 12 minutes to play Wednesday. Instead of folding, Indiana turned up the defensive intensity, ripped off 10 straight points to tie the game and hung on late for a face-saving 66-62 win in front of an announced crowd of 13,751 at Assembly Hall.
Trayce Jackson-Davis scored a game-high 21 points and grabbed seven rebounds while Justin Smith added 18 points to lead the Hoosiers.
After the under-12-minute media timeout, with Indiana down double digits, guard Al Durham began pressuring the ball the length of the court. The rest of the Hoosiers (12-3, 2-2 Big Ten) followed his lead, flying around on defense. Over the next 11 possessions, Northwestern (5-9, 0-4) went 0 for 6 from the field and turned the ball over five times.
“It was very desperate,” coach Archie Miller said of Indiana's defense late in the game. “Picking up full court at that point in time was necessary. We needed to jump start ourselves and get ourselves going.
“(We) started to apply the pressure and that slowed (Northwestern) down a little bit. We were trying to be as aggressive as we possibly could. We were active, got some deflected balls.”
As Indiana was turning up the pressure defensively, the offense found some rhythm. Durham, who finished with 16 points, attacked the basket repeatedly and made five free throws during the 10-0 run, including three in a row to tie the game at 50 with 7:38 left. The Hoosiers, who lead the country in free throw attempts per game, went 23 for 30 at the line. Durham was 11 for 12.
Northwestern went back in front 59-54 with 3:20 remaining, but the Hoosiers again refused to budge. Smith scored twice in a row, including a flying layup plus a foul on a pretty outlet pass from Durham, to tie the game and a strong Jackson-Davis dunk off a lob from Rob Phinisee put the Hoosiers up four with 1:24 remaining.
Indiana led 29-19 in the first half, but went without a field goal for a 7:05 stretch before halftime as the Wildcats went on a 15-2 run. Another 5:21 stretch without a basket in the second half helped Northwestern push the lead to 50-40 before the Hoosiers rallied.
“We were definitely lacking some energy (in the first 30 minutes),” said Smith, who turned the ball over five times in the first half, but none in the second half and had six rebounds and three steals. “Why? I couldn't tell you. I just think we need to be more engaged going into (games).
“We got a little comfortable, especially with the lead early on.”
Despite the victory, it was clear after the game that Miller feels his team is not playing to its potential. He spoke repeatedly about cutting down the rotation and going more often with a core group of players rather than trying to play all 11. He also wants to see an improved mental focus from his players.
“I'm very concerned with our group right now just in terms of where our brains are, where our minds are and what we're about,” Miller said. “It can come and go with wins and losses with a team like ours, as many guys as we have. ... We've gotta get ourselves out of a little bit of a funk and we have to start competing a lot harder because this is the toughest league in America right now to win a game.”