Indiana’s bubble hopes have seemingly been popped in the most March way possible via a 66-63 loss to Rutgers.
Down by three with twenty-seven seconds left, the game seemed over after Rob Phinisee missed a very contested layup. Then, the fiery Xavier Johnson committed an aggressive foul trying to get the ball back in front of the Scarlet Knights’ bench.
It seemed that Rutgers was headed to the charity stripe to put away the game. But, amongst the madness was a flying fist from Paul Mulcahy that met the head of Johnson as the two were intertwined as they went flying out of bounds.
Mulcahy was charged with a flagrant-2 foul and Indiana was rewarded two shots and the ball back down by five points after Rutgers made their free throws from the Johnson foul. Miller Kopp would convert on both free throws giving the Hoosiers a shot to tie the game.
The ball went found the hands of an ice-cold Parker Stewart– who had missed four in a row from deep. However, the surest shooter on Indiana missed his fifth straight attempt with 15 second to go. A held ball gave it back to IU, and IU went back to Stewart on a baseline out of bounds play. And, this time he didn’t disappoint by nailing a corner three with 10 second left to tie the game.
“That’s the first thing I told him when he got into the locker room. He was down on himself already, and I told him ‘you missed three or four before then and you come up and hit a big shot like that, we’re going to need that the rest of the year. Play with that confidence all the time,'” Trayce Jackson-Davis said after the game.
The Hoosiers and their ecstatic fans were ready for five more minutes of free basketball.
Or so they thought.
Rutgers didn’t call a timeout, and Ron Harper Jr. dribbled the ball down with no defensive pressure being applied. Then, he put a pro-like hesitation move on Race Thompson and fired away from just beyond the arc.
Bucket, ballgame, and most likely the end of Indiana’s NCAA Tournament hopes, all in one dagger from Harper, Jr.
For Indiana, it was the third game in a five-game stretch where the Hoosiers could not make key plays down the stretch and win the game.
“I think it’s — obviously, we’re not finishing games, but at the same time, we’re in every game. It just comes down to the last, almost the last four minutes of the game. You’ve got to get that one stop. You’ve got to get that one possession because one possession can beat you,” said Jackson-Davis.
“Down the stretch, that’s what we’ve got to hone in on, and we’ve got to focus on that last possession. We’ve got to get one stop. We’ve got to get one bucket to finish the game. That’s big on my teammates, and I think when we watch film, we’re going to see that.”
The Hoosiers played a solid enough first-half, especially Jackson-Davis who had 15 points and seven rebounds before the break. But you could sense the tides starting to shift. After a Jordan Geronimo jumper put Indiana up by 10, the Scarlet Knights responded with a last-second three by Geo Baker to cut the lead to seven at halftime.
That gave Rutgers the confidence they needed. They were able to force four Hoosier turnovers in the first five minutes of the second half. That led to a 10-0 run after a pair of Ron Harper Jr. threes, one of them a heat check that Harper pulled from deep without any hesitation.
The Scarlet Knights also switched to a 2-3 zone to limit the impact of Jackson-Davis, and it worked. The star was held to just four second-half points and was being double-teamed. As a result, other players had to step up.
“He (Jackson-Davis) was beating the double-teams early, and then they just basically sagged and forced us to make shots,” said Woodson.
“We had a lot of good looks tonight, guys. Miller had some good looks. Parker had a bunch of good looks. We just didn’t knock them down.”
Indiana showed signs of resiliency by going on their own 7-0 run courtesy of Johnson. The Pitt transfer scored five of those seven points by stealing the ball twice and taking it for a dunk and an And-1 on two separate occasions. He finished with 13 points, three rebounds, and two assists but four turnovers.
The Scarlet Knights, however, countered with their own 7-0 run. Then, Harper Jr. spoiled senior night for the Hoosiers.
“It hurts because you want to win for Race (Thompson) and then Parker (Stewart). This is a special night for those guys,” Woodson said of his seniors on their night.
“I remember 42 years ago, man, today playing my last game in this building and winning a Big Ten title. I wanted nothing more for them to at least experience winning on Senior Night, and we fell short.”
Before the game, ESPN had Indiana as one of the last four teams in the tournament along with Rutgers. The loss should surely take them out of the picture. However, the season is not over yet.
The Hoosiers still play Purdue on Saturday. Another win, this time on the road, against the Boilermakers would go a long way for Indiana. And, they still have the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis.
“If we go down to Purdue and win a big game there, it puts us back in the mix. Again, this is my first go around. I have no idea the selection and all that,” explained Woodson.
“We’re going to have to win some games probably in the tournament as well, but it’s not over. We’ve got to keep fighting.”
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