EVANSTON, IL - FEBRUARY 10, 2021 - during the game between the Northwestern Wildcats and the Indiana Hoosiers at Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston, IL. Photo By Missy Minear/Indiana Athletics

Aljami Durham and Indiana find a way to get a win they needed

EVANSTON, Ill — Trey Galloway came for Aljami Durham first, wrapping his arms around the Indiana senior guard as he drifted off the floor, having expended every bit of energy he had trying to win a game Indiana couldn’t afford to lose.

Sophomore big man Trayce Jackson-Davis followed, hugging him around the shoulders from behind and using Durham’s 185-pound body to carry himself off the floor after the 245-pound Jackson-Davis had played the last few minutes with a banged-up knee. Even with Jackson-Davis on his back, every other Hoosier got to Durham, just to find a way to show their appreciation for a player who yet again had summoned more out of himself than seemed possible. After Durham had shaken Jackson-Davis off and had a moment with sophomore guard Armaan Franklin, with whom he’d combined to score 47 points Wednesday, Archie Miller met him ahead of the tunnel at Welsh-Ryan Arena with the most exuberant of high-fives.

At a moment when Indiana absolutely needed a win but on so many occasions seemed destined not to get it, Durham did what senior guards do and delivered perhaps the greatest performance of his Indiana career. He scored a career-high 24 points, knocked down 11 of his 12 free throw attempts and hit game-tying shots in both regulation and overtime to force double OT where the Hoosiers finally held off Northwestern 79-76. It’s the first time since Dec. 30-Jan. 4 when the Hoosiers beat Penn State and Maryland in succession that they have won two games in a row.

Indiana improves to 11-8 overall, 6-6 in the Big Ten, likely keeping itself on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble for now. It also finally managed to grab a win after a victory over a Top 25 team, building on the momentum of Sunday’s win over then No. 8 Iowa after going 2-9 in their last 11 tries in games after a victory over a Top 25 team.

It’s not easy for Durham to impose his will on a game. He’s listed at 6-foot-4, 185 pounds, but the weight figure seems seems generous. There aren’t many Big Ten guards he can overpower and he struggles to finish through contact. which is why he’s made just 20 shots at the rim this season according to HoopMath.com. He’s a good but not great jump shooter (37.7 percent from the field, 36.1 percent from the 3-point arc this season) and he cares about defense but his size disadvantage makes it difficult for him to lock down explosive guards.

But throughout his career he’s found ways to stay on the floor and impact games, simply because he does everything a guard could be asked to do reasonably well, and he’s averaging a career-high 11.4 points per game. He’s soft-spoken and he’s not the most intimidating of leaders, but he’s never been afraid to speak up and that’s made him as close to a captain as the Hoosiers have on the roster. He impacted Wednesday’s game by reminding them with big plays and in the huddle that this was not a game they could afford to give away.

“We needed it more,” Durham said. “I echoed it to the team as we kept going and kept fighting. We needed it more. We needed this win very much. I felt like this win was very important to us because we haven’t been able to put two together. We haven’t been able to string two along. This win, we needed it.”

Durham played with that sense of desperation but also provided a calming presence even when the Hoosiers put together a travesty of an offensive performance in the first half. They missed their first nine shots, 13 of their first 14 and 18 of their first 21. At halftime, they had just 20 points on 7 of 29 shooting with seven turnovers, posting an abysmal .625 points per possession according to live stats. And this was against a Northwestern team that had a nine-game losing streak dating back to Dec. 26.

But thanks in large part to Durham, the Hoosiers never trailed by more than 14 points and were down just 23-20 at the half. Two of Indiana’s first field goals were 3-pointers by Durham, and he was the first Indiana player to make a free throw, going 2 of 2 at the line late in the first half after the Hoosiers had missed their first six shots there. His eight points accounted for almost half of Indiana’s total.

“He hit a couple big ones for us in the first half, just to give us a little bit of confidence,” Miller said. “A shot in the arm.”

And then late in the second half and in the overtimes, he gave them so much more than that.

Durham had just two second-half field goals but both were critical. He drilled a 3-pointer with 6:07 to go to halt a 13-5 Northwestern run that had put the Wildcats up by nine. Then after the Hoosiers fell behind by seven with 2:16 to go, he went on a 7-0 run to tie the game all by himself, scoring five points on free throws and then dropping in a floater in the lane with 24 seconds left that tied the game at 54.

He also had three steals in the period, including one at the end of the regulation when Northwestern had the ball and a chance to win.

“He did a really good job especially late of being able to pick and choose his spots,” Miller said. “He hit some shots for us.”

Franklin carried the Hoosiers in overtime, scoring their first 10 points in the period, to finish with 23 in the game, but Durham hit the shot that made sure they continued on. The Hoosiers had the ball with the clock running down when Franklin drew a double team off a ball screen by Durham. Franklin turned and threw back across his body. Durham had to leap to catch the pass, took one dribble that put him on the 3-point arc, pulled up and drilled a shot that tied the game at 66 with 1.4 seconds to go.

“Two went with him and I knew he was going to throw it back to me,” Durham said. “I seen the man coming at me real fast. I tried to pump it and step back real fast and I missed the line, but I knew the shot was good.”

And after a late-clock 3-pointer by Jerome Hunter with 15 seconds to go in overtime put the Hoosiers up four points and in control, it was Durham who hit four free throws down the stretch to put the game away. A 3-pointer by Northwestern Chase Audige with 12 seconds to go cut it back to one, but Durham twice managed to turn a one-point lead into a three-point advantage to help the Hoosiers put it away.

“He made every pressure free throw,” Miller said. “Which was unbelievable to see.”

It was sort of unbelievable that the Hoosiers managed to get out of Welsh-Ryan without what would have been a crushing loss. But Indiana proved again that its biggest strength is a refusal to wilt even when so much is going wrong.

And it might be Durham’s most important strength as well.

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