On the night before Christmas Eve, Simon Skojdt Assembly Hall had an eerie vibe.
Snowy, frigid weather in Bloomington, combined with winter break for students and holiday travel, led to a sparse crowd Friday. The building was still hopping, as it is for every home game. But something was just a bit off.
And that’s how much of Indiana’s game against Kennesaw State felt. With two starters (Trayce Jackson-Davis and Xavier Johnson) sidelined, it just felt a bit off. It was far closer than the 69-55 final may indicate.
In fact, this game felt similar to the Arizona and Kansas games that went awry for the Hoosiers. IU came out slow, allowed Kennesaw State to take a lead, and struggled to adjust to the Owls’ tough defense in the first half. Kennesaw State took away the inside game for IU’s offense, double-teaming Race Thompson and Malik Reneau in the post, and they had trouble finding outlet passes. When they did, it often led to missed shots. IU shot just 29 percent from the field in the first half.
On the other end, the Hoosiers gave KSU too much space beyond the arc. The Owls were hunting those shots often, and they drained six in the first half.
IU, in a lot of ways, was fortunate to get to the locker room with a tie game at halftime.
“Arizona and Kansas were two games that we just didn’t show up. They taught us how to play hard in those two particular games,” IU head coach Mike Woodson said. “Tonight, I tip my hat to Coach (Amir Abdur-) Rahim and his team because I thought they played harder than we did in the first half.”
Kennesaw State is a far inferior opponent than Kansas or Arizona. And that’s no disrespect to the Owls, who played hard all night. But this is a game the Hoosiers entered as 20-point favorites, and here they were again. On a path for which defeat was an extremely possible destination.
But this time was different. For the first time in many weeks, Indiana basketball faced adversity and fully overcame it.
The Hoosiers adjusted by bringing Race Thompson out to the top of the key — something Woodson did with Jackson-Davis at Kansas — and it worked. IU’s offense found more rhythm and flow. Shots started falling. And IU tightened up its defense.
The game didn’t immediately swing to IU for good once the second half started. The Owls had one more run in them, taking the lead back after IU went up by five early.
But when Tamar Bates hit a 3-pointer to make it 42-40 Indiana with 11:04 remaining, it gave IU a lead it wouldn’t relinquish the rest of the night.
And though it was against a sub-200 team in KenPom, it was encouraging. Outside of the Xavier game — when IU was fully healthy — the Hoosiers have wilted in these positions almost every other time they’ve been there this season.
Indiana players spent much of the first half on Friday looking at each other to go make a play, instead of doing it themselves. IU appeared to sorely miss the alpha mentality Jackson-Davis provides.
But this time, Indiana found consistent second-half production in Bates and Jalen Hood-Schifino. And unlike the losses, IU made enough plays to actually finish the job.
Bates, in particular, was crucial, with several plays that helped swing momentum toward IU.
“He’s put in the time and he’s getting some more minutes now. He’s been able to knock some shots down for us,” Woodson said. “It’s what he’s capable of doing. It’s what I expect. When I run plays for him, I expect him to deliver. I thought tonight he did.”
This loss would’ve been a big problem. It was a Quadrant 4 game in the NET, and any losses in that category would negatively impact postseason seeding. IU avoided that pitfall, with (likely) no Quad 4 games left on the schedule.
And now, the Hoosiers can go into the upcoming 12-day break from games reassured.
They can still handle adversity. They can still close out wins when things weren’t going their way earlier.
The Hoosiers still have that in them.
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