The game plan of Minnesota was simple. Pack the paint to limit Race Thompson and Trayce Jackson-Davis, and force others to make plays.
However, Rob Phinisee and Xavier Johnson made the Gophers second guess their defensive plan in the 73-60 Hoosiers’ win.
On the first offensive possession, Minnesota made their plan known. There was about five feet of space between Johnson and the nearest defender. First, he attacked the paint for the pull-up jumper to open the scoring. Then he recognized that he was being left open to shoot and did not hesitate to pull the trigger and hit the three.
The Pitt transfer has been slumping the past six games and had shot just 17-of-54 from the field for 31.4 percent coming in. He was also shooting 4-of-16 for 25 percent in those contests.
But Johnson showed signs of progress on Sunday in Bloomington. He converted on 40 percent of his shots from the field and 33 percent from deep for 14 points. He showcased his athleticism by using a hesitation move to freeze the defender before going up for a reverse layup.
The senior guard also had five assists to just one turnover. One of them was a smooth no-look pass to Thompson for an emphatic slam.
“I’ve been having pretty bad games,” Johnson admitted. “I’m not mad. It’s something that I’ve got to push through because I’m working every day and I work on my craft every day, and my team believes in me, and I’m going to continue to work for them.”
As Phinisee subbed in for Johnson, he saw the same defensive look, and with room to operate, the senior point guard patiently found his shot. Phinisee missed his first attempt but he stayed with his shot and converted on 4-of-8 of his attempts to tie his career-high for threes in a game.
“Really I felt like just coming off the bench, I saw how they were guarding X (Johnson), so I mean, usually that’s how teams usually guard us the same a little bit. When I came in, I really just was shot ready, and I knocked down the shots,” said Phinisee.
The Lafayette, Ind. native ended the game with 13 points, three rebounds, four assists, one block, and two steals. Over the past couple of games, the point guard has been more aggressive and has actively been looking to create for himself and others. He proved it by shooting off ball screens and pulling the jumper without hesitation.
“I mean Rob has been through the grind of the Big Ten and he knows the ins and outs of it and he’s a senior. So I expect him to lead,” Woodson said of the senior.
“I’m just trying to break that past and say hey man, here’s the ball, you know it’s okay to lead. It’s okay to be good, man. It really is.”
Once the Gophers started to respect the guards’ abilities to knock down shots, they had to adjust their tactics. This allowed the Hoosiers to go back to their bread and butter and dominate the paint.
“They went small. So, if they’re going to play us small, we gotta feed the ball inside, and that’s what we did.” Woodson said.
After having just four points in the first half, Jackson-Davis came back to life. To start the second half, Johnson forced a quick entry pass into the big man, who quickly put up a left-hook for the basket.
It was one of his four second-half baskets. The preseason All-American ended the game with 13 points and 12 rebounds for his sixth double-double of the season despite getting double-teamed nearly every time he touched the ball.
“Hey, he was patient,” Woodson said of his star player. “When he had it, he made the play, and when he didn’t have it, he sacrificed the ball, which we need.”
Thompson also took advantage of the size mismatch in the second half. After having just one basket in the opening 20-minutes, he went to work. The Plymouth, Minn. native, who thought of this game as ‘personal,’ finished with 10 points and five boards.
The frontcourt duo of Thompson and Jackson-Davis ended the game with Phinisee, Johnson, and Trey Galloway. The lineup finished the game by allowing just nine points in the last nine minutes of the game. The Gophers didn’t score a field goal in the last three minutes.
“I call it winning basketball,” said a grinning Woodson. “When there’s not cutting time, you’ve got to step up and make plays. They came back from being down as much as 10 and took the lead. Our defense really picked up after that.”
“We had the lapse and then we started to really pick it back up and play, and then coming down the home stretch those last three, four minutes, we were solid like we were at the end of the first half.”
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