Mike Woodson was looking for answers midway through the first half, and he found them sitting on the bench.
The Hoosiers picked up where they left off at Syracuse, and opened their Big Ten opener against Nebraska by turning the ball over when Trayce Jackson-Davis traveled while trying to make a move to the basket. That was just the first of seven turnovers in the opening 10 minutes as the Hoosiers quickly found themselves trailing 16-6.
Woodson, fed up with the team coming out “flat,” went to the bench.
Out came Race Thompson, Miller Kopp, Parker Stewart, and Xavier Johnson. In came Rob Phinisee, Tamar Bates, Jordan Geronimo, and Anthony Leal– who had only seen 24 total minutes in three appearances this year.
“It was a very important. We came in slow and not really into the game. I mean, we were flat, man, and it’s the first time I’ve seen that, and I tried to let them play their way out,” Woodson said of the first half contributions from the bench.
“You know, we missed some good shots. We had good looks early. But they built I think a 10-point lead at one time, and so I had to change it up, went to the bench and our bench was fantastic tonight coming in.”
The unit immediately made a difference by sparking a 7-0 run. Leal, perhaps the least likely hero, was monumental in that run. First, the Bloomington native needled a perfect pass through the outstretched hands of two defenders to find Bates for the layup. He followed it up by splashing a three from the wing. Leal was able to record a steal, a rebound, two assists, and make his only shot. A third assist went right through Bates’ hands. The sophomore played 12 minutes, his most in a game this year.
“I mean, you see Anthony every day in practice he goes 125 percent every single day and he really deserves it,” said Race Thompson. “I don’t think any of us are surprised that he goes out there, gets a steal, makes a shot and that’s what he does every single day in practice. So I’m really proud of him. Hopefully, he can keep going out there and doing that.”
The other key contributor off the bench was Bates. The freshman entered the game and was ready for the opportunity. After only scoring two points against Syracuse, Bates did not hesitate to keep shooting. The former four-star recruit shot 4-of-9 from the field–3-of-7 from three-point range– and ended with 13 points. One of his threes included a circus, double-clutch shot with the shot clock winding down. Another one was a step-back three after that Bates converted after breaking down the defender.
“Shooters shoot. I’m going to keep shooting the ball. I can miss 10 threes; I’m going to shoot the 11th one. It really don’t matter to me. It don’t matter. We get the reps you have every day. We work at it. What’s four misses to however many shots I’ve made, like ever, like when I work out or anything.” said Bates of the bounce-back performance.
Coming out of halftime, the starters responded well. The first offensive possession of the second half ended with Parker Stewart– who was scoreless in the first nine minutes– making a three-pointer at the top of the key. Then Xavier Johnson quickly and instinctively stole the in-bounds pass and laid it in for a free bucket.
The starting unit was able to build an 11-point lead before the first substitution– aside from Johnson who was subbed out with three fouls. Jackson-Davis ended the game with 14 points but it was Stewart that was the catalyst for the offense in the second half as he shot 3-of-5 from behind the arc for nine points. He has now made 21-of-44 of his three-point attempts this season for 47.7 percent.
“Well, he can shoot the ball. Just got to put him in position where he can make shots, and he’s been making them. I thought the Syracuse game, he was right on the money in terms of the 3-ball, and tonight he made threes when we really needed him,” Woodson said of Stewart.
But while the starters closed this one out, it was the bench who turned the tide in the first half. And it was a redeeming effort.
Against Syracuse, the bench only scored 10 points in 50 minutes. Today they scored 26 points. Five bench players contributed to the scoring, and 18 of those 26 points came into the first half when the team needed it most.
“I think our bench can start on matchup Big Ten teams in the country,” Thompson said of the unit.
“We have starters coming off the bench. Knowing we have Scoop (Bates) coming off the bench, Anthony (Leal), Jordan (Geronimo), anybody coming off the bench that we can believe in them and trust them to make shots, make plays and be in the right spots. I think that’s just what makes a good team.”
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