BLOOMINGTON — On Indiana’s final possession of the game, Penn State blew up everything the Hoosiers tried to execute.
They tried to run senior guard Al Durham off two separate screens and couldn’t find him open on either one. They tried to get sophomore big man Trayce Jackson-Davis a look in the post and couldn’t get any space. They had rising star sophomore guard Armaan Franklin sitting in the corner alone, but never had an angle to get him the basketball.
“Nothing went wrong on the last possession,” IU coach Archie Miller said. “They did a really good job on defense of switching every screen. When you switch every screen, like us, we switched every screen on the other end, eventually somebody has to break you down and try to make a play.”
So Rob Phinisee did what a junior point guard with 54 career starts to his name is supposed to do. He probed the defense and made something out of nothing.
The right-handed Phinisee took three left-hand dribbles from the right elbow beyond the arc to the left edge of the paint, planting his foot even with the B1G logo. He faked a dish down low to Jackson-Davis, looked to Franklin in the corner and saw him covered, then spun backward on his left foot and drilled a turnaround jumper over the outstretched arm of Penn State guard Myreon Jones. Phinisee’s bucket gave the Hoosiers an 87-85 lead with 12.2 seconds to go, which they held on to for their first Big Ten win of the season Wednesday night in Assembly Hall. It was part of an 11-point effort for Phinisee, his first double-figure scoring game since the Hoosiers’ Nov. 30 win over Providence.
“Big Shot Rob!,” Durham said at the end of their dual press conference after the game. “Remember the name!”
— Rob Phinisee (@robphinisee1) December 31, 2020
“Remember the name,” was an enthusiastically imperative sentence from Durham, but it could have just as easily been a question.
Remember the name? Remember Big Shot Rob?
Phinisee has made big shots in big moments, going back to his freshman year when he beat Butler at the Crossroads Classic with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer. He has the sturdiest of demeanors, and that’s served him well in a few dramatic situations.
But for far too many stretches and too long of periods in his Indiana career, the former Lafayette McCutcheon High School star has been painfully quiet, especially on the offensive end. Expected to be a cornerstone of Indiana’s rebuild when he arrived with Romeo Langford as part of the Hoosiers’ well-regarded Class of 2018, he’s faded to the background with Jackson-Davis and Franklin emerging as the Hoosiers’ most reliable offensive options.
In Phinisee’s third season and he’s never averaged more than 7.3 points per game or 3.4 assists per game. He entered Wednesday nights’ game having scored a combined total of 11 points in his previous three games and having gone seven games without a double-figure scoring effort. He wasn’t making up for it with assists either, with a total of 18 in nine games and had been moved to the bench to allow Durham to shift over to the point, Franklin to move to the 2 and freshman Trey Galloway to crack the starting lineup at the small forward spot. Though Durham kept his starting job, he hadn’t been doing much better, having scored in double figures just once since Nov. 30.
As productive as Jackson-Davis and Franklin have been, Miller still finds the lack of production from his veteran backcourt unacceptable, so he challenged both publicly and privately this week, and he challenged Phinisee especially.
“Rob is sort of the pulse of our team,” Miller said. “When he’s not himself in terms of his own confidence and how he’s approaching things, that hurts us. It really does. … We need Rob to handle the ball, get to the basket, make guys better and be more aggressive with his opportunities.”
The Hoosiers saw opportunity against Penn State’s defense to be more aggressive in general. In man-to-man, the Nittany Lions frequently sell out to deny the ball to the wings, which gave the Hoosiers a chance to attack them off the dribble. Durham and Franklin were more effective early, but Phinisee started to find a groove with a floater in the lane toward the end of the first half.
Then early in the second half, he attacked even more with three field goals in under three minutes, including his first 3-pointer since Dec. 13. That set him up for his only assist of the game, a slick one to Durham in the corner that gave Indiana a 12-point lead with 9:58 to go in the game. Durham had 18 points and four assists himself and he and Phinisee combined to shoot 11 of 21 from the field.
“Really, my teammates really just gave me confidence, and just keep playing aggressive,” Phinisee said. “Just played team ball. So, really I am just going to keep playing aggressive, be accurate in practice and play my role.”
A critical part of Phinisee’s role is still defense. Even when he’s struggled to score the basketball, he’s generally drawn the assignment of the opponent’s top ball-handler, and on Wednesday night he found himself guarding several of the Nittany Lions’ dynamic guards. He didn’t win every battle, and the Hoosiers certainly didn’t, allowing Penn State to shoot 47.7 percent from the field and 12 of 28 from beyond the 3-point arc. However, Phinisee stepped up down the stretch with three blocked shots in the game and a forced turnover in the final minute of regulation that helped keep the Hoosiers from blowing a double-digit lead in regulation.
“When Rob is engaged and he’s in the groove of the game, he’s as good of an on-ball defender as you’re going to play against,” Miller said. “He also does some really good things for us off the ball. He’s done it since his freshman year. He’s guarded the best player on the team 85 percent of the time, realistically. When it started getting thick out there tonight, we needed him in a big way.”
And they needed him in an even bigger way on what turned out to be the last possession in overtime when he hit the bucket that won it.
“Obviously it was a broken play,” Phinisee said. “I just saw an opening and I feel like I had to make a shot for my team. I just delivered it.”
But delivering in that instance won’t be enough. The Hoosiers have a potential All-American in Jackson-Davis and Franklin is playing All-Big Ten caliber ball recently, but their ceiling will be severely limited if their veteran guards aren’t producing at the level their experience suggests.
So that means the Hoosiers need more of Big Shot Rob and less disappearances from their point guard.
“He is a big key to the season,” Miller said. “A big key is how he plays.”
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