Photo credit IU Athletics

Jalen Hood-Schifino came through when it mattered against Illinois

BLOOMINGTON — In a span of just 25 seconds, Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall felt the full Jalen Hood-Schifino experience.

With 1:41 left to play, and Indiana and Illinois tied at 65, Hood-Schifino took the ball up the floor following a lengthy video review. He set IU’s offense into motion, before attempting a pass to his left to Race Thompson at the top of the key. But he telegraphed the pass, and it wasn’t hard enough. Fighting Illini junior Coleman Hawkins stole the ball, took it the other way, and dunked it.

But back came the freshman, looking unshaken. He went around a Trayce Jackson-Davis screen, got space in mid-range, and nailed a pull-up jumper with 1:16 remaining.

No sequence may summarize Hood-Schifino’s season more than that.

“He’s a freshman. Freshmen make mistakes,” IU head coach Mike Woodson said. “You’re not going to shoot it well all the time, but I always judge players at the end of the game about who they are as a player, and he made the plays down the stretch that counted. That’s what I look at.”

Hood-Schifino made plenty of mistakes Saturday. But he came through when it mattered most, and that was a huge reason why IU escaped with a 71-68 win over Illinois.

The freshman guard had a rough first half. He shot 1 for 8 for just two points, and though he had three rebounds and three assists, he committed three turnovers. He made poor decisions, like tossing a wayward lob to Jackson-Davis instead of making a simple play with a 2-on-1 fastbreak.

Indiana, as a whole, didn’t play well in the first half, and Woodson said the locker room got heated at halftime. And both Hood-Schifino and his team didn’t come out of the break entirely different. The Hoosiers looked flat to start the second half, and Hood-Schifino recorded a rebound, a pull-up jumper, and a turnover within the first three minutes of the half.

Hood-Schifino never quite went into takeover mode in the second half, but he was notably better, and made big plays late. He finished the second half 4 for 9 for 11 points, with four rebounds and two turnovers.

On IU’s next offensive possession after his game-tying shot, he drew a foul and knocked down both free throws to give the Hoosiers a 69-67 lead with 30 seconds left. He was called for a shooting foul on the next possession on a Jayden Epps drive in isolation, but replays showed he made a clean block.

But he bounced back from that, too. Epps went 1 for 2 at the line, hitting the second after an Illinois timeout. The Fighting Illini tried to trap Hood-Schifino on the ensuing in-bound with 16 seconds left, and the freshman looked to be in trouble against the double-team. But he remained calm, spotted Trey Galloway making a cut up the floor, and made a perfect pass ahead to the junior. That set up a crucial Jackson-Davis dunk to take IU’s lead to three points with little time remaining.

“If he had miscued those plays, then I’m in his ear after the game or tomorrow saying, ‘These are things that you’ve got to learn the next time you’re in that position,'” Woodson said. “But he made every right play except for throwing the ball away out of the timeout. As a coach, that kind of tears you up. But I thought he made winning plays coming down the stretch to help us win it.”

Hood-Schifino has been inconsistent this season. At his best, he’s been a game-changing playmaker capable of dominating opponents.

But his lows are low. He’s shot under 30 percent in nine games this season, and he’s also had four or more turnovers in nine games. This was the third time he’s done both in the same game, and this was the first time IU won in spite of it.

There are times he makes jaw-dropping, athletic, winning plays. When Hood-Schifino is assertive and his shot is on, he’s a very hard player to stop. But that aggressiveness works against him at times as well; he’ll take shots he shouldn’t, force things that aren’t there, and just make poor decisions.

But mentally, even when he has those bad moments, he stays locked in. And that was on full display Saturday.

“I remember in the last media timeout, I said, ‘If we run that high angle, get to your spot, because you’re going to be open.’ He was kind of frustrated a little bit, he didn’t really want to run it,” Jackson-Davis said. “And then down the stretch, (he) got to that spot and hit a huge shot, especially after turning the ball over. It just shows how high of a focus he has, and his next-play mentality. He’s just ready to go, always.”

Indiana can win without Hood-Schifino at his best. He’s scored in single digits eight times this season, and IU is 8-0 in those games — though, in fairness, four of those contests were against weak non-conference opposition.

He was thrust into a lot of responsibility for IU when Xavier Johnson broke his foot in mid-December. Hood-Schifino, for two months now, has run the point for Indiana’s offense, every game. He’s had to take that task on while still growing and developing as a player, himself. And after all this time with Johnson out, there will be another adjustment if and when the senior returns.

Hood-Schifino’s NBA Draft stock is rising. The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie pegged him as a late lottery pick in an updated mock draft earlier in the week. His frame, potential, and skill set suggest an NBA future is very possible.

“Fino, he’s a gamer. He works hard every day,” Jackson-Davis said. “He has the ultimate confidence in his abilities.”

Given those draft prospects, this may be Hood-Schifino’s only year with the Hoosiers.

So they have no choice but to take his good with his bad, and carry the same trust in him that he has in himself.

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