By Dustin Dopirak
The 23 minutes before Trayce Jackson-Davis’ first basket in Sunday night’s game at Nebraska included some of Indiana’s best offensive basketball of the season.
By the time the Hoosiers’ preseason All-America center got a field goal on the board on a finish off a late clock baseline out of bounds lob, Indiana was already 20 of 41 from the field including 8 of 16 from the 3-point arc. Both of their starting guards were well into double figures, they had 3-pointers from five different sources, and they were at one point early in the second half averaging over 1.3 points per possession.
But not long after that bucket, the Hoosiers suffered the sort of debilitating drought that has affected them entirely too often this season and allowed the Cornhuskers to turn a 15-point deficit into a three-point lead.
In the end, Indiana turned it around, found some more buckets and squeaked out an 84-76 victory in Lincoln, improving to 8-5 overall, 3-3 in the Big Ten, claiming victory in a game the Hoosiers absolutely could not afford to lose. Jackson-Davis still managed 15 points and 11 rebounds thanks in large part to the nine fouls he drew, but he finished with just three of Indiana’s 30 field goals. It was an ugly win but an instructive one, as it showed Indiana exactly how good it can be and how bad it can be when opponents design their entire defense around stopping their best player.
“They were obviously surrounding the paint with five players,” Indiana coach Archie Miller said, “and they also trapped the post most of night and tried to make other guys beat them. … I would say Nebraska was probably the first team that had an extreme level of (focus on Jackson-Davis.) They let other guys shoot it, make them shoot it. I think they did it last year to us as well. They decided not to guard some guys, just let guys wide open.”
It was sound strategy considering Jackson-Davis went into Sunday night’s game averaging 20.5 points per game and was responsible for 24.2 percent of the Hoosiers’ field goal attempts and 28.4 percent of their made baskets. With sophomore guard Armaan Franklin out with an ankle injury, the Hoosiers didn’t have another player on the roster averaging better than 10.5. Also, Franklin is by far the Hoosiers’ best 3-point shooter, making 20 of his 42 attempts this year (47.6 percent), and the rest of the roster came in having made just 53 of 178 (29.8 percent).
For those first 24 minutes it backfired. Nebraska dared the Hoosiers’ generally erratic outside shooters to take 3-pointers, and for once Indiana actually made them.
Junior guard Rob Phinisee found his shooting stroke on the game’s second possession with a 17-foot jumper and scored 14 points in the game’s first 10 minutes on 6 of 7 shooting with three 3-pointers and a pair of strong finishes at the rim. He had 16 points in the first half and finished with a career-high 18 for the game. It was his third double-figure scoring effort in four games after he went seven without one.
“I just tried to be aggressive and take what the defense gave me,” Phinisee said. “Some of it was confidence and some of it was the way they were playing defense. They were going under a lot of screens and really just packing the paint. So I just took them and knocked them down.”
Phinisee’s start was infectious and others found similar rhythms. Senior guard Aljami Durham hit a pair of first-half 3-pointers and and had 10 points at the break. Redshirt sophomore wing Jerome Hunter hit three of his first four field goals including a 3 and had seven points at the half, and even struggling freshman point guard Khristian Lander hit a 3-pointer, albeit the banked variety.
The Hoosiers who have so often relied on interior scoring posted just 14 points in the paint in the first half and got a combined one field goal on two attempts from Jackson-Davis and redshirt junior forward Race Thompson but still took a 46-34 lead into the break. In the first half they shot 18 of 34 from the field and 7 of 13 from beyond the arc, posting 10 assists against just six turnovers.
“Right now we’re getting more confident handling it,” Miller said. “I also think we have more guys with confidence offensively that feel good about shooting it. We’re getting a lot of different contributions game-in, game-out from behind the line.”
The contributions vanished not long after the break, however.
Thompson opened the second half with his third 3-pointer of the season, but then the Hoosiers missed their next five attempts. Jackson-Davis’ first field goal was the second of three straight makes, but then Indiana made just one if its next seven shots and three of its next 14.
After Thompson’s 3-pointer, the Hoosiers missed their next nine from beyond the arc. Phinisee and Durham both went quiet after the break and had one field goal each in the first 13 minutes of the second half on a combined eight attempts.
Water found its level, and the Hoosiers were reminded why opponents are so willing to let them shoot from the outside.
“Not watching the film and just having a feel for it from the bench, I think the shots in the first half were the same in the second half,” Miller said. “The ones in the first half just went in. We got some good looks in the second half. They didn’t go down.”
A 22-6 Nebraska run from the 15:53 mark to the 9:39 mark of the second half turned a 15-point Indiana lead to a 63-62 Cornhuskers advantage and the Hoosiers found themselves scrambling down the stretch.
The Hoosiers managed to muscle out a win mostly through sheer force of will. A 3-pointer by freshman guard Anthony Leal that tied the game 69-69 with 7 minutes to go was a critical one that helped them catch their breath, but everything else came on the inside. Durham attacked off the dribble with a layup and three late free throws. Jackson-Davis finally found some room to work and also kept drawing contact, hitting two buckets in the lane but also making six free throws in the game’s last 3:15. He drew nine fouls in the game and was 9 of 14 at the line.
“Al made a couple of big plays, made a couple of drives and got fouled,” Miller said. “Trayce sort of emerged when we needed him the most.”
So did Hunter. He missed a 3-point shot from the left wing with 1:38 to go and the Hoosiers clinging to a two-point lead, but he followed the shot, grabbed the rebound and finished at the rim to make it 79-75. They were two of 16 second-chance points for the Hoosiers and clearly the most important of those.
“Jerome missing his own shot and following it up was probably the nail in the coffin in giving us the ability to win the game,” Miller said.
The Hoosiers haven’t seen the paint packed this season the same way they did last season, especially because with Justin Smith and Joey Brunk on the floor next to Jackson-Davis, the Hoosiers had three players on the floor who weren’t looking to shoot from outside at all. However, because Jackson-Davis has been so dominant early, Miller expects more to try to take him away. Indiana needs to take advantage like it did in the first half and not go cold like it did in the second.
“Teams are going to do that,” Miller said. “Purdue is going to do the same thing. They’re going to trap Trayce every time he touches the ball. It’s not going to be anything new. … Trayce is going to have to continue to deal with the doubles and our guys are going to have to continue to be confident when it comes back out.”
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