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On a night when they were needed, Jerome Hunter and Rob Phinisee play like cornerstones

In the final minute of a game Indiana absolutely had to have on Wednesday night, Rob Phinisee and Jerome Hunter did what veterans are supposed to do.

They made big free throws. When Minnesota was hanging on to its last breath, and still had just enough time for a miracle, Hunter and Phinisee hit the shots that erased all hope.

Hunter’s came with exactly one minute left and they gave him a career-high 16 points for his second consecutive double-figure scoring game. Phinisee’s came with 37 seconds to go and they made him the fifth Indiana player in double figures. His were the Hoosiers’ final points in an 82-72 win over a Minnesota team that is at this point every bit as much on the bubble as Indiana is, therefore giving the Hoosiers an important edge when it comes to the NCAA Tournament committee’s eventual judgment. Indiana improved to 12-9 overall, 7-7 in the Big Ten with its third win in four games while Minnesota slid to 13-9, 6-9 with hits fifth loss in its last seven.

Hunter and Phinisee’s performances were just parts of a much grander whole for Indiana, as the Hoosiers statistically had their best offensive night of the year in a season when they’ve frequently struggled on that end.

They cracked the 80-point mark for just the fourth time in Big Ten play this season. They made 26 of 45 field goals, including 14 of 21 in the second half, to finish with their best shooting percentage of the season at 57.8 percent, making more than 50 percent for the first time since their Dec. 30 win over Penn State. They were 7 of 12 from beyond the 3-point arc, their second-best percentage of the season at 58.3 percent, and 23 of 30 at the free throw line for their second highest made free throw total of the season. Their 1.215 points per possession figure made it their most efficient performance of the season according to KenPom.com. Sophomore center Trayce Jackson-Davis didn’t have any problem with slow starts, going off for 20 points and 10 rebounds. Senior guard Al Durham scored 16 points on 5 of 6 shooting and sophomore guard Armaan Franklin added 11 points.

If not for 17 turnovers, that led to 25 Minnesota points, the Hoosiers would have had a nearly perfect night.

“We were pretty efficient tonight when we didn’t turn the ball over and we got some good shots,” Miller said. “We made some tonight, which was good.”

But Phinisee’s and Hunter’s performances stood out, simply because the Hoosiers haven’t been able to count on that kind of production from them as much as they expected they would be able to at this point in their careers. If they suddenly become consistent down the stretch, the Hoosiers’ chances for entry and advancement into the tournament increase significantly.

If you wanted to pinpoint a reason for why Miller hasn’t been able to rebuild at Indiana as quickly as he’d hoped — which has led to a significant amount of grumbling from the fanbase about Miller’s future in his fourth year at the helm  – the overall underachievement of the Class of 2018 provides as much explanation as anything.

It was Miller’s first full recruiting cycle at Indiana and it produced five-man class that included one of the most coveted players the Hoosiers have ever landed and four more players Miller hoped would be foundational pieces for his rebuild. In its third year, however, Hunter and Phinisee are the only ones left thanks to the expected early NBA entry of Romeo Langford and the transfers of Damezi Anderson (after two years) and Jake Forrester (after one).

The Hoosiers had reason to believe Hunter and Phinisee in particular would be cornerstones and at least borderline All-Big Ten players. Hunter, the second-highest rated Indiana recruit in the class at No. 59 according to the 247Sports.com rankings, fit the modern game as a 6-foot-7 wing with 3-point range and post moves. Phinisee, rated No. 135 in the class, was a proven winner as a point guard, having won 93 games and scored over 2,000 points in four seasons at Lafayette (Ind.) McCutcheon High School.

To date, it hasn’t worked out that way. They have been each slowed by different circumstances, but each has had physical issues. After a strong preseason in his true freshman year, Hunter sat out the entire 2018-19 campaign with a leg condition the details of which he has continued to keep hidden. He didn’t even practice until shortly before the beginning of last season, and it’s kept him from ever finding the form or endurance he had when he first stepped on campus. He’s never started a game in two seasons, he hasn’t played more than 25 minutes in a game this season, and is averaging 4.7 points per game in his career. He’s shown promise from outside with 40 career 3-pointers, but Wednesday was just his sixth double-figure scoring performance in 49 games. Part of the reason for that is he’s never been the defender he was in high school and that’s made it hard for the Hoosiers to keep him on the floor.

“His injury was not one most people have,” Miller said. “He is not the same athlete that he once was. He does not have the same ability that other guys have to recover.”

Phinisee has had an array of injury issues with a concussion as a freshman and a lower abdominal injury before his sophomore year that nagged him throughout the season. Those made it harder to perform, which have in turn led to continuing issues with confidence which have cut into his production.

Phinisee immediately earned a starting spot as a freshman and has started 63 of the 80 games he’s played in, but he’s averaging just 7.1 points and 3.1 assists for his career and shooting 37 percent from the field and 31.4 percent from beyond the arc. He’s had a list of game-turning on-ball defensive performances and he’s hit big shots in big moments — the buzzer beater against Butler in the Crossroads Classic his freshman year and the game-winner against Penn State in December this year come to mind — but in between he’s had games when it was easy to forget he was even on the floor.

Wednesday’s was just his seventh double figure scoring game of the season and his fourth in Big Ten play.  He spearheaded the Hoosiers’ upset of Iowa in Iowa City on Jan. 21 with 18 points and an outstanding defensive performance on Jordan Bohannon, but in the five games that followed he scored a combined total of 19 points on 5 of 27 shooting including 3 of 11 from beyond the 3-point arc. In one of those games, against Illinois on Feb. 2 he fouled out in 13 minutes without registering a point, rebound or an assist. He was averaging just 7.3 points and 2.6 assists per game coming into the game.

Not what a bubble team in the Big Ten needs from its starting point guard.

“I think part of it is he cares and he is a thinker,” Miller said. “He processes things. He worries. I think part of it is, it is hard when you don’t play well to avoid the noise. There is a lot of noise. A guy doesn’t play well they get impacted sometimes. You have to try to block everything out and stay focused on the task at hand and do your best. Some guys get down. I think Rob, sometimes when he doesn’t play well he lets it carry over a little too much. He thinks about it a little too much.”

But on Wednesday night, both players were much closer to what Miller has been asking them to be since they arrived.

Hunter in particular had reason to be motivated. He had been benched against Illinois on Feb. 2 and Iowa on Feb. 7 for reasons that neither he nor Miller fully explained. Miller said it was a “coach’s decision” and said that Hunter had not been in the mindset to help his teammates. He didn’t dress against Illinois and didn’t enter the game against Iowa even though he was dressed.

But Miller said he’s had the right attitude ever since and he’s been productive in games. He scored seven points in 17 minutes in his return against Northwestern and had 10 in Saturday’s loss at Ohio State before Wednesday’s breakout.

“I just feel like I let my team down,” Hunter said. “I’ve come back with a bigger chip on my shoulder to show everybody that I apologize and that I am here to help us win some games.”

On Wednesday, he showed off every bit of his versatility, making five shots on six attempts. He hit a pair of 3-pointers within 1:07 of each other in the second half, but he also scored a layup on a dunk on baseline cuts and banked in a mid-range shot in the first half and drew contact from Minnesota big man Liam Robbins for a 3-point play.

“Jerome is playing well and he is playing hard,” Miller said. “He is playing very physical and he has brought that back to practice when he has gotten his opportunities to go to work. He is playing like he is practicing right now. He is playing to win. Has great confidence in his shot, he is not hesitating. He is playing through mistakes and he is giving us a little bit of physicality, a little bit of ruggedness that we need.”

Phinisee’s play was a little more uneven. He turned the ball over four times and he missed all three of his 3-point attempts and is now shooting just 30 percent (21 of 70) from beyond the arc this season. However, he was aggressive off the bounce and scored four field goals on crafty drives that served as a reminder of what made him such an effective scorer in high school. He also dished out six assists and played strong defense on Minnesota star Marcus Carr, a likely All-Big Ten first teamer and possible All-American.

Carr scored 19 points on 7 of 16 shooting, but he was a non-factor for most of the second half when Indiana took control. He scored just eight points in the second half on 3 of 8 shooting, and all three field goals came in the game’s final 2:10.

“Rob played his behind off,” Durham said. “Rob played defense. Rob scored when he needed to. Rob made the right decision when he needed to. He made the right passes. Rob played a great game and I am proud of him. He had a couple of games where he wasn’t playing like himself, but tonight he showed you Rob Phinisee. He did everything for us.”

Miller has demanded more performances from Phinisee down the stretch. He’s willing to live with more mistakes and missed shots, he said, if Phinisee is more willing to step out of his comfort zone and try to make plays.

“I told him yesterday at practice, I don’t care if he goes 0-for-10 at this point,” MIller said. “It really doesn’t matter to me, because his value to our team when he is aggressive defensively, when he is driving like he was today, when he gets six assists during the game, that is what we need Rob to do. … Go 0-for-30, I don’t care. Play hard as you can. Shoot it when you are open. Pass to someone who is open and just worry about competing like crazy and that is what we need to do.”

For Phinisee and for Hunter to be the foundational pieces they were supposed to be, they need to do it more than occasionally.

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