Much was made of the success of Indiana’s in-state recruiting efforts when Greenwood, Indiana native and class of 2019 five-star Trayce Jackson-Davis signed with the Hoosiers last week.
But you don’t have to look forward to next season to see the fruits of Archie Miller’s recruiting efforts within Indiana.
You can just look at IU’s 2-0 start in the Big Ten, where two different native Hoosier freshmen took those two games over down the stretch to lead Indiana to victory.
First it was Romeo Langford against Northwestern on Saturday. Most IU fans expected some first year fireworks from the five-star recruit from New Albany.
While Indiana fans knew they had a solid point guard in Lafayette native Rob Phinisee, it wasn’t as clear when he might emerge as a major contributor at IU.
While Phinisee has been a starter since the season began, you’d be forgiven if you didn’t see Tuesday night’s heroics coming.
After a hot start to the season, the freshman point guard had hit a wall over the last three games going into Penn State. Against UC Davis, Duke and Northwestern, Phinisee was a combined 3 of 12 from the field and 1 of 4 from the free throw line. He scored just seven points in those three games — combined.
His struggles seemed to carry over into the Penn State game. Playing tentative on the road early, Phinisee seemed a long way from his early season success.
With Devonte Green splashing two big first half three pointers and bringing a higher level of energy to the Hoosiers, Phinisee’s starting job looked like it may be in jeopardy.
The Hoosier freshman point guard got things going midway through the first half by doing what he’s done best so far on the young season — facilitating.
Phinisee earned assists on key first half three pointers by each of Green, Langford and Al Durham to help IU move from an early 9-0 hole to a late first half lead.
Then IU’s assist leader provided a sneak peek of what was to come in the second half. In the final seconds of the first half, Phinisee broke down his defender with a wicked jab step and sliced through the Penn State defense for an impressive finish at the rim to give IU a little boost going to the locker room.
Rob Phinisee put Myles Dread in a body bag with that jab step! pic.twitter.com/SSxvihpHgN
— Nick Baumgart (@Nick_Baumgart) December 5, 2018
Those were his first two points of the game. But they wouldn’t be his last.
Indiana rode the momentum of that late first half bucket out to a 46-32 2nd half lead. It looked like the Hoosiers might run away with it. But Indiana fans know the recent history of the IU/Penn State series and the way Nittany Lion head coach Pat Chambers likes to amp up the defensive pressure when down late in games.
Sure enough, Penn State worked the IU lead back down to 54-50 with seven minutes remaining. Coming off a Lamar Stevens basket, the Nittany Lions were bringing the defensive intensity, and their small but boisterous crowd was at full throat.
The burden of that Penn State defensive pressure falls squarely on the opposing point guard. Enter Phinisee.
On Indiana’s next possession the Hoosier point guard calmly drained a three-pointer to extend the lead back out to seven.
Penn State cut it back to five at 57-52, and Phinisee answered, drawing a foul while attacking the rim and sinking two free throws.
Seconds later, Phinisee secured a rebound and attacked the rim before the defense could get set up for two more, extending the lead back out to 61-52. An assist to Evan Fitzner stretched the lead back out to 11 at 63-52 with just under four minutes to play.
But of course Penn State just kept coming. Eventually, the Nittany Lions had the ball with two seconds remaining now down just two with a chance to tie or win the game at the buzzer.
It was time for Phinisee’s final act of his dominant final seven minutes.
This game came down to the final possession, and @IndianaMBB clamped down to improve to 2-0 in B1G play.
Indiana 64, Penn State 62, pic.twitter.com/nP7SdbVWVu
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) December 5, 2018
Justin Smith was credited with the steal on the game’s final play, but it was Phinisee’s awareness switching out to the baseline and seeing the ball to get the deflection that disrupted Penn State’s efforts at the end. It took one savvy freshman to know that Penn State would be trying to go to Lamar Stevens for the final play, and seeing that Smith was held up in a screen, necessitating the switch.
IU head coach Archie Miller has praised Phinisee as a student of the game, and it was clear on that play that the pupil was implementing the teacher’s reads and ball-you-man principles to perfection.
Miller was effusive in his praise for Phinisee after the game.
“Rob was really good tonight. He played a big time game on the road, stepped up, made shots, didn’t turn it over, defensively hung in there, and then made a huge key play late with the switch out being able to deflect the ball and come up with it. He also got five defensive rebounds at the guard slot which was good.”
The difference from Miller’s perspective in Phinisee from his three prior game was being more aggressive.
“He was a lot more aggressive. He had a lot better pace about him. In transition, he was downhill a lot more in the second half being aggressive at the rim. I thought he got into the paint much more than he had been getting into the paint. He made plays. He did a nice job for us. He got to the basket. Transition, he got to the basket late. He made some really big plays for us in the middle of that second half where he was able to score the ball, which he hadn’t been doing as much. He hadn’t been as aggressive shooting the ball. He’d been passive. So, to watch him step up and make the three, nail the free-throws, and get to the basket a couple of times was good.”
In total, Phinisee scored 10 of his career high 12 points in the second half, and 7 of Indiana’s final 10 points in the game. During that final seven minutes he added 2 rebounds, an assist, a steal, and that game sealing deflection.
More than the numbers, a true freshman point guard went on the road for the first time in the Big Ten, and led his team down the stretch.
Hoosier fans are hopeful that Miller’s in-state recruiting focus produces success for years to come. If the first month of his first freshman class is any indication, they surely won’t be disappointed.
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