CINCINNATI, OHIO - November 18, 2022 - guard Xavier Johnson #0 of the Indiana Hoosiers during the game between the Xavier Musketeers and the Indiana Hoosiers at Cintas Center in Cincinnati, OH. Photo By Andrew Mascharka/Indiana Athletics

IU leans on veterans to win tough road game

It’s through tough games in unfriendly environments that you can learn a lot about a team.

Friday’s game at Xavier met that criteria for No. 12 Indiana men’s basketball. And IU’s 81-79 win at the Cintas Center showed that this crop of Hoosier veterans is capable of leading them to victory in games like that.

“It’s hard to win on the road,” IU head coach Mike Woodson said. “You’ve got to do all the things right. They built a lead, a couple times, against us, and we just held fast and steady. We were able to get back in it. And then it was back and forth. It could’ve been anybody’s game. But I thought we made the winning plays down the stretch.”

This was IU’s first non-conference road win since 2011. And on a night when freshman Malik Reneau forced his way into Woodson’s crunch-time lineup, it was two of the Hoosiers’ seniors who really carried them.

One of those seniors is exactly who you’d expect, in preseason All-American Trayce Jackson-Davis. He came through in yet another big spot, leading Indiana with 30 points — his seventh career game with at least 30. And he did so efficiently, on a 13-for-16 clip.

Jackson-Davis simply wore down the opposition. Even in the rare moments where Xavier’s forwards gave him trouble, he just kept going at them. Musketeers head coach Sean Miller said that the biggest reason his team lost is simply because they didn’t have an answer for Jackson-Davis.

The senior knows his team depends on him to be an alpha in these situations, and he happily obliged to fill that role here.

“This was our first road test. Some of the younger guys haven’t played in this hostile environment situation, but I have. So I took the load tonight,” Jackson-Davis said. “It’s something that I want to do whenever I need to.”

It may be unfair to say that Xavier Johnson’s big game was unexpected, but it surely wasn’t expected. Johnson is capable of nights like this — and sometimes, it feels like those nights come when his team needs it most. And IU definitely needed it Friday.

Johnson shot 7 for 8 from the field — he didn’t miss his first field goal until the last segment of the game, with three minutes left. Along with a 7-for-10 night at the free-throw line, he scored 23 points, and he grabbed seven rebounds.

He was important defensively as well, often matching up with Xavier standout Souley Boum. Boum had a solid game and came through in some big spots, but Johnson did well to limit his impact at times.

Johnson did have some negative moments, with a 2:4 assist to turnover ratio, and a (controversial) technical foul at a key point late in the first half. With Johnson, it’s often about taking those negatives along with his positives and hoping for nights like Friday.

“He was sporadic here and there, but for the most part, he was solid,” Woodson said. “I was on X a lot, especially after he got the tech. And then we had a box play where we didn’t switch correctly, and that cost us a big bucket. But for the most part, X was solid. He did all the things we needed him to do to help secure this win. So I’m pleased.”

Miller Kopp and Race Thompson struggled shooting the ball, but still impacted the game. Thompson grabbed a team-high eight rebounds, even though he was the one who made way for Reneau in crunch time. Kopp hit what Woodson called the biggest shot of the game, a 3-pointer to extend IU’s lead to 78-70 with 2:25 to play. He was 0 for 3 from beyond the arc at the time, and 1 for 7 from the field, but he didn’t hesitate to take the big shot.

Indiana is obviously a very experienced team, with four seniors in the starting lineup and two juniors in the main rotation off the bench. It’s not a story, in of itself, that IU leaned on veterans for a big win.

But it becomes notable when that big win comes in a true road game — because up to this point, that’s not something this group has done. IU’s only road wins last year came over teams that missed the NCAA Tournament. IU’s last road win over a tournament-quality opponent was in February 2021 at Iowa. And though Jackson-Davis did lead the Hoosiers in scoring that night, as well, that team looked a lot different than this year’s squad.

Some of these players had done it before, but this group hadn’t.

So this feels different.

That 2021 win at Iowa came as the Hoosiers were just hoping to get in a position to have a chance at making the NCAA Tournament. These Hoosiers have much bigger expectations and goals. And this game was their first chance to prove that those lofty predictions are justified, that this season could be better than the last several that preceded it.

And by answering that call, IU’s veterans showed that they can, in fact, win a tough road game.

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