Khristian Lander has spent the majority of this young season buried on the end of the bench.
Jordan Geronimo, although he had played in 33 total minutes, could only watch helplessly as he was expelled to the bench in favor of the experience of Race Thompson, and the dominance of Trayce Jackson-Davis.
Tamar Bates has played meaningful minutes this year but has struggled to find his rhythm offensively like any freshman. Through the first two games, the four-star recruit only had nine points on 2-for-8 shooting.
However, when the Hoosiers hit a wall offensively, the three came in at various points and provided instant production and tenacious defense to help the Hoosiers claim a too close for comfort 76-74 win over St. John’s.
“So Coach Woodson says when your name is called, you’ve got to be ready to play and those guys stepped up and we needed them for this win,” Jackson-Davis said of the key contributions off the bench from the trio.
After being scoreless for his first two minutes in the early first-half Bates was called upon. After a beautiful press break by Rob Phinisee, the freshman drove to the lane and faked a pass before finishing with a floater.
The talented guard followed it up by scoring seven points in a minute. The first basket was a step-back three in which Bates showcased his ball-handling by breaking down the defender with a crossover before firing the shot. He ended the game with a new career-high in points with 11 on 5-of-10 shooting.
“He’s a freshman and he’s got to get his body, get a little more meat on his body. But he’s been playing well, man,” Woodson said of the young freshman. “I like him because he sees the moment. He’s not scared of the moment. You need players like that.”
The Hoosiers ended the half with a 39-27 lead. That vanished quickly as they struggled offensively after the break. To make matters worse, point guard Xavier Johnson struggled with foul trouble, and Rob Phinisee wasn’t playing well.
After he checked in at the 11:27 mark of the second half, it seemed that Woodson would have to replace Lander after he picked up three fouls in two minutes. Instead, Woodson showed confidence in the sophomore as he let him play for six minutes, the same amount of time he had gotten in the first two games combined.
But these were six much more critical minutes as IU tried to hold off St. John’s in the second half. Lander’s minutes allowed the Hoosiers to save Johnson for crunch time and not let him pick up a fifth foul. It also showcased the potential that Evansville product has.
The former five-star recruit was able to use his speed to break the St. John’s press with ease. On one play, after a loose ball, Lander picked up the tempo and sprinted down the court and flipped up an acrobatic left-handed scoop at the rim for a tough finish.
“It’s crazy, we have so much depth at the guard position,” Jackson-Davis said.
“He (Lander) stepped in and did his thing; so salute to him. It’s only going to help his confidence and help him get better. We really need it and I’m glad that he succeeded in this moment.”
A couple minutes after Lander entered, in came Geronimo. At the moment he came in St. John’s had erased a 12-point halftime deficit and tied the game at 56. On the first offensive possession, Lander swung it to the versatile big man on the wing. With no hesitation, the Newark, N.J. native fired and made the three 21 seconds after he checked in.
Geronimo followed up that play with an impressive baseline drive and an up-and-under reverse layup. On the night he gave IU seven points and five rebounds in just eight minutes.
“Again, you know, I went to him, I think around the six, seven-minute mark, and he came in and he responded. He made some big plays for us. He made a couple buckets. He hit a three and he hit a little leaner in the lane,” Woodson said.
And then when St. John’s had a final possession to tie or win, Woodson went to Geronimo one more time.
“My (assistant) coaches are over screaming at me saying, hey, let’s get him in the game for defensive purposes, and so we put him in,” Woodson said.
The last-second switch ended up helping IU to secure the win as Geronimo’s help defense on a dribble drive with five seconds left caused a poor pass at the ankles that disrupted the play and forced an errant desperation heave. Julian Champagnie was forced to chuck up a shot from deep three, and it was rebounded by Geronimo as the buzzer sounded.
“Last year we struggled closing out games and Coach Woodson said it’s a new year, and we’re not doing that no more. It’s our home court and we protect our home court at all costs. We make the plays that need to be made at the end of the games to win the games.” said Thompson.
And many of those key late plays came from the bench.
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