Rough first half at Northwestern bites Indiana

Indiana has continually played with fire in road games.

The Hoosiers, for whatever reason, make away games a lot harder than necessary. IU won comfortably at Illinois, but that’s proven to be the exception, not the rule. In most of these games, Indiana has played sloppy basketball during important stretches of the contest.

IU got away with that against Michigan on Saturday. But on Wednesday at Northwestern, the Hoosiers got burned. Indiana’s three-game winning streak was snapped as the Wildcats pulled out a 64-62 victory with two seconds left in Evanston on Wednesday.

But, despite an uncalled push-off on Boo Buie’s winning shot, the difference in this game was the first half. Northwestern led by 19 points at halftime.

“You can’t spot a team at home 19 and expect to win all the time,” IU head coach Mike Woodson said. “I thought we fought hard in the second half to get back in it. But we just got off to such a rocky start on the road. I just didn’t see the comfort in starting this ballgame. It showed.”

IU started the game with plenty of energy — if anything, it was too much energy. There were a few positive moments early, like pull-up jumpers from Jalen Hood-Schifino that signaled a big game on tap.

But Indiana committed turnovers on its first two possessions, and five in the first 10 minutes. And while Northwestern’s defense did make IU uncomfortable, many of the errors were unforced.

The Wildcats limited IU star Trayce Jackson-Davis in the first half with a quick double-team trap every time he touched the ball. The senior finished with five points in the first half, on just three field goal attempts. He had six rebounds and two assists, but also two turnovers.

“It’s my fault. I wasn’t ready to play in the first half. I didn’t get my teammates ready. Being a leader on this team, I’ve got to be up, I’ve got to be ready to go, and I wasn’t,” Jackson-Davis said. “And so that first half’s on me.”

But while Jackson-Davis fell on the proverbial sword for his teammates, it was a collective poor showing that led to Northwestern’s large advantage at halftime. Hood-Schifino cooled off, and couldn’t take control when IU needed him to with Jackson-Davis getting swarmed. Tamar Bates continued to struggle. Miller Kopp, and others, missed open shots.

And on the other end, the Hoosiers allowed Buie and Chase Audige to control the game, just as they did when Northwestern won in Bloomington in January.

The miscues on both end started piling on top of each other, and the game got out of hand as the half went on. It’s hard to overcome a start like that.

IU nearly did. The Hoosiers deserve credit for completely turning the game around in the second half and giving themselves a chance. But they just left too much work to do.

Woodson indicated a possible cause of the rough start was the team’s attitude going into the game.

“I thought we were too hyped up to play the game,” Woodson said. “They felt really good coming into this game. And sometimes, that can be against you. You’re doing things that you shouldn’t be doing, and that’s what happened. It was an ugly first half.”

Indiana is 4-7 this season in games played outside of Bloomington. Five of those opponents held double-digit leads in the first half, and Xavier had two separate nine-point advantages.

And all the other games, aside from the 80-65 win at Illinois, featured other issues. A disastrous blown lead at Iowa, untidy performances against Maryland and Rutgers, failing to properly handle a bad Minnesota team.

The mid-January victory in Champaign has been IU’s only truly comfortable road win this season.

And, in fairness, this is expected in some ways. It’s not easy to win on the road in college basketball. That goes for everyone in the country, not just Indiana.

But after March 5, the Hoosiers won’t play any more games at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall this season. The Big Ten Tournament and the NCAA Tournament is not in Bloomington.

The Hoosiers have shown what they’re capable of at their best this season, and they’re justified to head down the stretch with high hopes. But March could end abruptly if they continue to tempt fate away from home.