COLUMBUS, Ohio — Indiana men’s basketball appeared to be on a familiar path.
The Hoosiers struggled in the first half Tuesday at Ohio State, and trailed by double digits at halftime. They badly needed a strong start to the second half to shift the momentum, but gave up a 7-2 run out of the locker room. The Buckeyes stretched their lead to 18 points.
IU answered with an 11-2 run, but had a lot of work to do. It felt like a repeat of several other games throughout this season — the team would keep fighting and not go down easily, but its rough start would prove insurmountable.
That’s how this game was going — until it wasn’t. Indiana, slowly but surely, chipped away at Ohio State’s lead. The closer the Hoosiers got, the more confident they looked. And this time, their resolve paid off. Indiana came back for, perhaps, its most shocking victory of the season: a 76-73 triumph at Value City Arena.
“We’ve had some runs at home early in the season when we were down and made some big runs to end up catching up and winning the game. You don’t like being in those positions very often,” IU head coach Mike Woodson said after the game. “But the focus was there. We didn’t quit. We just kept fighting and fighting until we finally made things bounce our way. The result was a win.”
Indiana (14-9, 6-6) has made these sorts of second-half runs before, as Woodson referenced. For all their flaws, the Hoosiers have shown fight in so many games. They needed big second-half efforts to win against Florida Gulf Coast, Army, Morehead State, and Kennesaw State.
And that persistence hasn’t only been in wins. IU lost in ugly fashion — in different forms — against Nebraska, Purdue and Wisconsin, but they strung together tangible runs at some point in the second halves of all those games.
Those spurts all came after the opponent had pulled away with a massive lead, after IU dug itself too deep a hole. Too little, too late.
Indiana trailed by 20 or more in each of those three games. Ohio State (13-10, 3-9) was on a similar track Tuesday, twice leading by 18 points and the Hoosiers looking rattled.
But they never lost confidence they could come back, despite the deficit.
“We definitely acknowledged it today, just the fact that we were clawing back and getting closer and closer,” senior Anthony Leal said. “We were pretty confident that they would fold. Just staying resilient, keep fighting through that, we were able to figure it out.”
Indiana knew it couldn’t erase an 18-point deficit all at once. It had to come in surges.
The largest burst saw IU outscore the Buckeyes 10-0, from 7:01 to 5:00 in the second half. When senior Trey Galloway drilled a 3-pointer during that stretch to cut OSU’s lead to seven points, the energy in the building changed. Suddenly, it wasn’t only the IU players who believed a comeback was possible — IU fans in the stands also felt it.
As the Hoosiers clawed their way back into the game, they set small goals to achieve by the next media timeout. Reduce the deficit to 10 points; get it down to six; tie the score; win.
And, throughout the comeback, they reminded each other to stay connected as a team.
“It’s just trusting your teammates,” sophomore Malik Reneau said. “We’ve been doing this since the summertime. We’ve been building this bond and this chemistry together throughout, even though we lost a couple rough ones, where it it felt like we weren’t together, we won a couple ones where we weren’t together. But we’re finally trying to get that mix together where we’re all connected, and we’re slowly but surely finding ways to win games.”
Indiana’s belief and trust proved fruitful. A Kel’el Ware shot in the paint gave IU the lead back with 2:46 remaining. And then, after Ohio State went back on top, Leal hit the biggest shot of his IU career: a 3-pointer, off a Galloway assist, to put IU ahead with 22 seconds left.
In a way, these sorts of scenarios are a microcosm of Indiana’s season. The Hoosiers have dug themselves a deep hole with their losses and poor showings in early-season wins. They didn’t have a Quad 1 win on their résumé until Tuesday.
Beating a struggling Ohio State team doesn’t change the reality of Indiana’s season. This group still has a lot of work to do to make any postseason berth realistic. And there may not be enough time nor opportunities for big wins remaining to make that happen, at least for the NCAA Tournament.
But winning a game like this provided the Hoosiers the reward for the fight they showed not only Tuesday, but in so many other games this season. After all the recent losses, and all the soul-searching that came with them, this win showed Indiana its effort can, in fact, yield dividends.
“I think you learn what we’re made of,” Galloway said. “It’s not easy to come down on the road down 18, but I think just us really sticking together and taking it one play at a time. You can’t win those 18 points back in one play, so just chipping away and finding ways to go out there and compete and keep battling and keep fighting and find a way. That was the biggest thing, and we did that.”