Trayce Jackson-Davis once again reached Super Saiyan mode on Thursday against Wisconsin, entering the zone that we saw against Maryland and Florida State in which it seems that no one has a sliver of a chance to stop him.
But Indiana as a whole outplayed Wisconsin for much of the game, even in an 80-73 double overtime loss, not just because Trayce got into this rhythm on steroids, but because of the players around him. During this stretch of elite play from the star big man, Archie Miller surrounded him with Rob Phinisee, Anthony Leal, Al Durham, and Jerome Hunter, all players who can shoot the three and score the basketball.
Suddenly, the impossible happened. Wisconsin could not stop Indiana’s offense. The floor spacing, customary to most teams, was staggering when it was the team in the cream and crimson doing it.
Down their second-best player and best perimeter creator in Armaan Franklin, the Hoosiers needed more than a monster Trayce Jackson-Davis to be competitive against a top-ten Wisconsin team on the road at a place they haven’t won in the last 17 tries.
They needed three threes from Anthony Leal, who had a career-high within minutes of checking into the game after draining back to back triples in the first half.
They needed Jerome Hunter to come in and do what he does best: provide spacing and score the basketball. The big man obliged, scoring 12 points, knocking down a pair of threes and throwing down a huge dunk in the final minute.
They needed Rob Phinisee and Al Durham, the veteran backcourt, to play like they have in the past, scoring the ball and looking to probe and push the pace. The guards combined for 25 points and 11 assists, all while playing hard-nosed defense.
They needed all of that…just to barely cover what was a nine-point spread coming into the game.
But even after a valiant back-and-forth performance by Indiana, the better, older team prevailed, outscoring the Hoosiers 11-4 in the second overtime period. Indiana’s once-electric offense stagnated, its always reliable defense slowed its rotations, and its players began to panic, forcing bad shots and missing easy looks.
“Give them credit, they made enough winning plays at the end, and we didn’t make enough winning plays at the end,” Indiana coach Archie Miller said after the game. “We didn’t do that when we needed to it the most.”
The sour taste that that last period of play leaves in the mouth shouldn’t diminish the impact of the supporting cast, many of whom had not played this many meaningful minutes all season.
Leal, in particular, may have emerged as someone Archie Miller can trust as the season nears the home stretch.
The freshman wing, who said he has been making 500 three-pointers a day to prepare for just this moment, easily surpassed previous career-highs in minutes (18) and points (4). In 35 minutes, Leal scored nine points and played solid defense, often paired with Wisconsin big men after switches.
Dating back to his days at Bloomington South, two specifics are always mentioned when Leal’s name comes up: his work ethic and his penchant for winning games.
The work ethic, in particular, has rubbed off on his coaches, and clearly, is starting to rub off on his teammates.
“Anthony works his behind off,” senior Al Durham said after the game. “He’s one of the hardest workers on the team. I’m not shocked about [his performance]. When I tell you he works his behind off. I really mean it. When you look up a hard worker, it’s him. I’m not surprised by what he did tonight. I’m not surprised by how he played. It was in due time for him.”
Leal’s in-season development may be the most critical of any Hoosier currently, with Khristian Lander unable to prove right now that he is deserving of more than the four minutes he played tonight, and Jerome Hunter continuing to match every impressive shot with an equally impactful mistake.
Archie Miller needs Leal to become a reliable shooter and someone who can come into the game and space the floor. It was only one game, but tonight was a good step in that direction.
“I thought Anthony Leal showed why he’s a winner,” Miller said. “I think [Leal] made some big shots and helped us stay in the game.”
This team is still figuring out who it is, still figuring out what its ceiling is. To go on the road into what has been a house of horrors in years past against a top-10 team and make it a close game, without Armaan Franklin, is no small feat.
Miller will be the first to say there are no moral victories, but with a brutal schedule in which six of the next eight opponents are ranked and one of the other two is Purdue upcoming, he has to be hopeful that his team is ready to win some of these close games against stellar opponents.
They couldn’t close the deal Thursday night, but it seems clear that Indiana is knocking on the door, in large part due to a group of role players that have shown flashes, and now seem poised to put it all together.
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