PARADISE ISLAND, The Bahamas — Mike Woodson has told anyone who would listen for the last two months. The defensive install came first after he took over the IU basketball program.
On Friday night at the Atlantis Resort, that defense delivered in a big way as Indiana produced a somewhat surprising 79-66 win over Serbian professional team BC Mega.
Woodson emphasized the defensive end early in his tenure because he knows it will be the foundation of what he is trying to do at his alma mater. And he knows that even when his team is not expected to win as was the case on Friday, the defense improves their odds.
“I’ve always believed this and I learned this from Coach Knight, defense wins games man,” Woodson said on Friday night after the game. “And if we can put ourselves in a position to defend every night, I know we will be in every game.”
Indiana was more than in this one, they controlled the contest for most of the game. The Hoosiers pulled out to a 16-7 lead on a Jordan Geronimo 3-pointer with 12:36 left in the first half, and BC Mega would never get closer than a five point margin from there. They led by as many as 15 points in the first half (36-21) and led by double-digits for most of the second stanza.
BC Mega shot a fairly respectable 47 percent from the field on 23-of-48 percent shooting, but it was the number of possessions that didn’t result in shots that doomed them. And Indiana had everything to do with that.
The Hoosiers forced 24 turnovers which resulted in 33 points. BC Mega had just six fast break points despite making a conscious effort to push the ball up the court. Many of the BC Mega turnovers happened in transition as Indiana got back on defense aggressively and stepped into passing lanes.
IU was particularly impactful on the ball, as the point guard duo of Xavier Johnson and Rob Phinisee often picked up full court and made it very difficult for BC Mega to get into their offense. When they did manage to get past the first line of defense, Indiana’s active hands produced numerous deflections, and their array of help and switches protected the paint and generally forced contested 3-pointers where BC Mega was just 5-of-21.
“We had some breakdowns. That’s a big team that we played,” Woodson said. “But I thought for the most part our energy and our effort was amazing in terms of how we defended.”
Indiana produced 12 steals on the night, including four by starting guard Parker Stewart and two each from Johnson and Phinisee.
Forward Miller Kopp has seen enough of Indiana’s guards recently to not be surprised with how impactful they were on defense.
“I’m used to that, I’ve seen it at practice for two months. Those guys can really guard,” Kopp said after the game. “We feed off of that.”
While defense was the story in Woodson’s first game as the IU head coach, there were plenty of highlights on the other end.
On two occasions in the second half Kopp hit a 3-pointer to give Indiana 13 point leads and force BC Mega timeouts. He finished with 14 points including a 3-of-4 effort from behind-the-arc. The Northwestern transfer was one of a few Hoosiers who contributed to the IU defensive effort on NBA-bound Nikola Jovic, who had only three points while committing six turnovers.
Also with 14 was freshman Tamar Bates, who looked every bit the part of a top-30 recruit. Bates made his first four shots of the game, scoring from all three levels in the process. He didn’t look at all bothered by playing in front of fans or facing a professional team in his first game for IU.
“I wouldn’t say I had too many nerves because my teammates talked me up and let me know, just go out there and play,” Bates said. “It was just my teammates finding me in open spots really.”
Indiana’s leading scorer was All-American Trayce Jackson-Davis, who had 21 points and eight rebounds. Jordan Geronimo led IU with nine rebounds, and together the forward duo was very active on the offensive glass, combining to grab nine of IU’s 17 caroms on that end. Both players stood out for their energy and effort, and that may have been fueled at last in part by a changing of the guard.
Jackson-Davis, who decided to stay with the program and forego professional opportunities after Woodson was hired, was feeding off a newfound positive vibe that is permeating the program right now.
“I feel like the excitement and joy of playing basketball was at a whole different level,” Jackson-Davis said. “Me and my teammates had a whole lot of fun out there tonight.”
But don’t confuse that with Indiana’s All-American being content. He knows their 42 percent shooting from the field and 12-of-20 effort from the free throw line, to name a couple shortcomings, weren’t good enough.
“We didn’t even play our best game, nowhere near it,” Jackson-Davis said.
They will get another chance to do just that in the rematch with BC Mega on Sunday afternoon.
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