By Dustin Dopirak —
It was strangely fitting that Indiana’s last hope to save itself from wasting a gift-wrapped opportunity against a top-15 team Tuesday night hinged on skillfully missing a free throw. The Hoosiers had certainly missed enough by accident at that point to think that maybe missing one on purpose might actually work out in their favor.
Of course, it also required grabbing an offensive rebound, which is something Indiana hadn’t done in overtime or at any point since the 7:24 mark in the second half. They wouldn’t get one this time either as IU sophomore guard Armaan’s Franklin’s miss with 4.5 seconds to go ricocheted off the back of rim and directly into the hands of leaping Illinois guard Da’Monte Williams, who turned, drew an immediate foul and hit two free throws to seal the No. 12 Fighting Illini’s 75-71 overtime win at Assembly Hall.
It was just one more occasion of dozens down the stretch in regulation and in overtime when Illinois made a play it had to make and Indiana did not. And it was yet another winnable game Indiana lost. The Hoosiers fell to 9-8 overall, 4-6 in the Big Ten with six of their losses coming by 10 points or fewer and three of them coming in overtime. The Fighting Illini are ranked No. 5 in the NET rankings, so the loss isn’t a killer for Indiana’s NCAA Tournament chances. However, the Hoosiers are very much on the bubble with a month left to try to hang on to a spot and grabbing this victory would have done so much to bolster their case.
“Our guys competed,” Indiana coach Archie Miller said. “We’re not tough enough to finish games off. We’re not tough enough in little plays. … The tough plays that you gotta make to win. That’s why we have so many heartbreakers.”
And this one was particularly heartbreaking because the Hoosiers went in knowing so much would have to go right for them to stand a chance against an Illinois team that stands second in the hyper competitive Big Ten at 12-5 overall, 8-3 in the conference. Indiana actually did accomplish a number of its keys to victory. The Hoosiers wasted all of the following:
— A masterful defensive job by Franklin on All-Big Ten and preseason All-American guard Ayo Dosunmu, who also struggled with foul trouble and missed shots at the rim. Dosunmu is the Big Ten’s second-leading scorer with 21.2 points per game, but he finished with just 10 in 29 minutes on 2 of 11 shooting. He fouled out with 2:40 to go in the second half on a questionable charging call when Franklin planted his feet while Dosunmu was in the air just in front of the restricted area. That allowed the Hoosiers to play the last 7:40 without having to deal with the player known as possibly the best late-game closer in all of college basketball.
— An impressive performance by sophomore center and likely All-American Trayce Jackson-Davis, who finally figured out a way to attack Kofi Cockburn in his third matchup with the 7-foot, 285-pound Illinois big man. Jackson-Davis didn’t have a field goal in the first 14 minutes, and he was 6 of 18 from the field, but he finished with a game-high 19 points and 14 rebounds and figured out how to drag Cockburn outside instead of going right at him.
— Effective and extensive minutes from the freshman class, which had to pick up slack with veteran guards Aljami Durham and Rob Phinisee in foul trouble and redshirt sophomore forward Jerome Hunter out of the lineup because of what Miller called “a coach’s decision.” Point guard Khristian Lander played his game, knocking down a pair of 3-pointers to go with two assists. Wing Trey Galloway played 25 minutes and had three assists in his first game back after missing the previous two games with a back injury, and his defense on the final possession of regulation prevented Illinois from a game-winning bucket. Forward Jordan Geronimo and guard Anthony Leal combined for 25 minutes, and the Hoosiers put all four of them on the floor together for 2:46 in the first half and actually outscored Illinois 5-3.
— Lots of Illinois fouls. The Hoosiers drew a total of just nine in the first meeting between the two teams on Dec. 26 and shot nine free throws in the game. This time, they got to the line 34 times on 26 Illini fouls drawn.
— Excellent work on both ends by redshirt junior forward Race Thompson, who finished with 18 points on 6 of 9 shooting, eight rebounds, two assists, three steals and two blocks and drew nine fouls on Illinois players.
— A four-turnover first half in which the Hoosiers shot 48 percent from the field and averaged 1.28 points per possession.
— A game-tying driving layup by Franklin with 30 seconds to go in the second half. He had 11 points and two assists on a still-healing ankle.
The Hoosiers turned all of that good fortune into a loss, however, because they couldn’t make plays and more specifically shots when they needed to, and hit a trademark drought at the worst possible time.
Indiana had a 6 minute, 30 second drought without a field goal from the 14:30 mark to the 8:03 mark, but was fortunate enough to hit enough free throws to still hold a four-point lead at that point. However, they also didn’t have a field goal from a Jackson-Davis jumper with 6:24 to go until Franklin’s game-tying drive with 30 seconds left. They scored just four points in the final 5:12 of regulation and shot just 7 of 21 from the field in the second half with nine turnovers.
And overtime was even worse. The Hoosiers didn’t even score until a Thompson jumper with seven seconds to go and they finished with a total of three points in the period. They were 1 of 4 from the field with a pair of turnovers.
Some of that had to do with Illinois’ defense, which ranks 17th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. The Illini defended the drive well and funneled ball-handlers in toward Cockburn, which is not a fun place to be. He keeps it together on ball screens and is extremely tough to deal with at the rim. He finished with two blocks but altered others and simply deterred Indiana players on frequent occasions from attempting a shot. The Hoosiers scored just 10 points in the paint in the second half and overtime after scoring 20 in the paint in the first half.
“They are really hard on the ball,” Jackson-Davis said. “They are getting their hands on our guards coming down kind of disrupting our pressure. Then they got us down late in the shot clock. So, went to make tough shots and they did not fall.”
But some of it was simple offensive dysfunction. The Hoosiers passed on outside looks that were available, attempting just eight 3-pointers all game and hitting four of them. They frequently drove into traffic and either lost the ball or had to take it back out and reset the offense, costing themselves time on the clock. Part of that had to do with the fact that their veteran guards never seemed to be fully in control. Phinisee fouled out in just 13 minutes without a point, rebound or assist. Durham scored 13 points thanks mostly to free throws but didn’t have a field goal after hitting a pair of 3-pointers in the first four minutes of the game.
“In the second half we did not take care of the ball,” Miller said. “We had 15 turnovers with overtime and 11 turnovers in that 25 minutes kills you. For our team we cannot turn the ball over and in the second half we did not take care of the ball well enough. We had some reluctant shooters at times who felt they wanted to drive it and had a couple charges. I thought they were tough calls but at the end of the day you cannot turn it over 11 times and that really hurt us in the second half.”
So did missed free throws, as the Hoosiers missed eight of them in the second half and overtime.
The offensive struggles and in particular the shooting issues have been frequent and recurring, but in this one the Hoosiers also had a problem getting to loose balls. They won the rebounding battle 38-37 with each team getting 11 offensive rebounds, but loose balls were part of the reason Illinois ended up grabbing 15 turnovers including seven steals and turned them into 15 points and eight fast-break points to Indiana’s zero.
“Down the stretch probably four or five plays, loose balls, 50-50 balls that we have to grab, loose rebounds that we have in our hands that they take from us,” Jackson-Davis said. “And that is really, you cannot let that happen.”
Frustrated as he was, Miller tried to spin that as a teaching moment for a team that is still growing.
“I think our team is getting better,” Miller said. “It is hard in this league when you not only have to play well but you have to be super tough at the right times. You have to able to make couple plays, whether it is a loose ball, made free throws, or whatever it may be. We have to grow out of that because I think we can play anybody but we are having a hard time finishing things off. The good thing is we have another opportunity on Sunday against a great team.”
But at this point, 10 games into the conference schedule in Miller’s fourth season at Indiana, explanations like that start to sound hollow to Indiana fans, and losses like Tuesday’s simply feel like a waste.
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