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‘We needed all of it’: Race Thompson turns in huge night for IU men’s basketball in the NCAA Tournament

From the beginning of Indiana’s game against Kent State, it was clear what the moment meant to Race Thompson.

While some IU players needed time to settle into this NCAA Tournament first-round game, Thompson gave maximum effort right away. Whether it was running the floor in transition, diving across the floor to go after a loose ball, or playing good defense, Thompson was on his game.

He’d let out emphatic screams after big plays, matching his passion to his energy.

Thompson’s performance was huge in helping Indiana over the line Saturday. The Hoosiers defeated Kent State, 71-60, in Albany, N.Y. to advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016.

“Starting out (shooting well) like that, it just kind of settles you in personally,” Thompson said. “You’re feeling good about yourself, and that carries over to defense. I think it just gets our team going as well. Getting easy buckets like that kind of sparks our offense, sparks our defense. So I think it’s good to start like that.”

Thompson enjoyed one of the finest nights of his Indiana career in one of its biggest spots. He shot 8 for 11 from the field, including 2 for 3 from 3-point range, for 20 points. And he added nine rebounds, one block, and one steal.

This was only his third career 20-point game, and it matched his season-high set against Little Rock in November.

Thompson played smaller roles in Indiana’s NCAA Tournament games last year, scoring seven combined points between the two contests. He grabbed seven rebounds against Wyoming. But this performance far eclipsed his output in either game last year.

Thompson is wrapping his sixth year with the Hoosiers. He was the first recruit to commit to Indiana during the Archie Miller era. He reclassified and came to IU a year early, and redshirted to develop physically. And he used a COVID year to return this season.

And this hasn’t been an easy final ride in Bloomington. He suffered a knee injury in early January at Iowa, during a game that completely flipped around on IU after his exit. That sidelined him for four consecutive games in January, and he missed another game in February when it flared up again.

But on top of the actual missed time, the injury cost Thompson some effectiveness on the court. It took him a while to regain his usual agility on both ends of the floor.

He’s had other big games this season, notably a double-double against Michigan in the regular-season finale to help give IU a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament. But after all he’s gone through, to come up like this in the NCAA Tournament — Indiana’s most important game to date — meant a lot.

“I’m just thankful for my teammates always keeping me locked in. I’ve been banged up a lot this season, and if I can’t practice, they always tell me it’s going to be all right, just stick with it,” Thompson said. “I just give credit to my teammates and coaches for keeping me confident, keeping me locked in even when my body isn’t feeling great.”

For so long, Thompson took on the “glue guy” mantra, of a player important to his team’s success whose impact isn’t always reflected in the box score. And he’s still done those sorts of things this season.

His season-long numbers are down from a year ago — partially because of the injury, and partially because his running mate in the frontcourt, Trayce Jackson-Davis, has blossomed into one of the best players in college basketball.

However, Thompson has grown into a player that, on his night, does make his presence felt both on the stat sheet and the highlight reel. Earlier in his career, Thompson — both physically and in personality — was far from the type of player to make flashy, thunderous dunks. But he’s thrown down several this season. His one-handed jam against Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament was as powerful as any that Jackson-Davis has slammed home all season.

But Thompson is good for more than a couple big plays. When he’s clicking the way he was on Saturday, he’s Indiana’s most consistent player. And that was sorely needed early in this game, as some players had slower starts. The Hoosiers fed off Thompson to start the game.

“We’ve got so many weapons, and I think sometimes people forget that. But anyone can go off on any given night,” Jackson-Davis said. “Especially when you get into this tournament, everyone’s got to be clicking. Race was doing really well, hitting shots and doing everything. Our team, we’re not selfish. We’ll find guys and get whoever’s hot the ball. That’s what happened tonight. We were all clicking, and we really fed off him at the beginning of the game.”

When Thompson has quiet nights, he can almost disappear from the game. He rarely makes poor decisions on the court, though it did happen a few times during the Big Ten Tournament.

And sometimes his impact is overlooked because of Jackson-Davis’ brilliance.

But Thompson is so critical to Indiana’s chances at a deep run in this tournament. He’s versatile on both ends of the court, and he just has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. He made so many plays with that ability against Kent State.

And IU head coach Mike Woodson was proud of Thompson’s effort.

“Tonight should mean a great deal to him because last season you could have easily said he could have been our MVP, based on how he played. Unfortunately, he’s had some injuries this season that has kind of put him behind,” Woodson said. “To see him come out tonight and play a game like he did is special. I mean, it could not have happened to a better person because he’s a really good young man. So I was happy for him, and we needed all of it.”