BLOOMINGTON — The groans that filled Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, and the disgruntled looks on faces around the seating bowl, on the sideline, and on the court said it all.
“Here we go again.”
Indiana men’s basketball was doing it again. Several of its non-conference “buy games” this season have been tighter and more nerve-wracking than they should’ve been. Just over a week ago, the Hoosiers required a major turnaround to avert disaster against Morehead State.
IU started Friday’s game against Kennesaw State looking like that wouldn’t happen, despite not having leading scorer Kel’el Ware (illness). The Hoosiers led by 13 points at the under-8 media timeout in the first half, and they were in full control. But the Owls got themselves together, capitalized on some IU missed shots and other slip-ups, and got back in the game.
KSU cut the deficit to 50-46 by halftime, and took a four-point lead less than seven minutes into the second half on the back of a 10-2 run. The energy had slowly changed in the arena as Kennesaw State came back, and it reached a tipping point when guards Simeon Cottle and Terrell Burden drained back-to-back threes to put their team ahead and extend that advantage.
Indiana fans had seen this before, and knew what the next 13 minutes of action would hold.
But after Burden’s shot, IU head coach Mike Woodson made a lineup change that turned the game around. The Hoosiers rebuilt their double-digit lead and came out with a 100-87 victory.
“We won,” Woodson said. “That’s what matters.”
Anthony Leal had yet to enter the game before that critical point. In fact, he’d seen the court in only four previous games all season, despite Xavier Johnson’s continued absence with a left foot injury.
But Woodson sent Leal to the scorer’s table to relieve Gabe Cupps with the Hoosiers needing a jolt. Kennesaw State was causing problems with its pace and 3-point shooting — the Owls ranked 24th in the country with 27.3 3-point attempts per game entering Friday’s contest, and they’re No. 1 in KenPom’s adjusted tempo. They play small-ball, and IU’s lineups with two big men had trouble keeping up. Malik Reneau had another career night, but he could only do so much if the team was giving up frequent easy looks on the other end.
A few minutes prior to Leal’s entry, Woodson subbed out Payton Sparks for Anthony Walker to help solve that issue. And Leal provided fresh legs in the backcourt to give the Hoosiers renewed energy on both ends of the floor.
And that’s exactly what Leal did. After he checked in, IU went on a 21-3 run that ultimately decided the game.
“He definitely had a spark off the bench,” Reneau said. “He came in with so much energy, it just rejuvenated us, I’ll say, and got us back to what we needed to do on the court, and we got stops.”
Leal finished with just two points, an assist, and a steal. But he finished a team-best plus-17 — plus/minus can be a flawed statistic at times, but in this instance, it’s reflective of his defensive impact. The Hoosiers closed out on 3-point shooters better after the senior checked in — and they’ve regularly struggled with 3-point defense throughout the first two months of the season. The Owls shot 13 for 23 from beyond the arc before Leal checked in; with the Bloomington native on the court, they went 4 for 12.
That’s not a coincidence.
It wasn’t Leal alone closing down shooters and turning the tide — that entire lineup of Leal, Reneau, Walker, Trey Galloway, and Kaleb Banks remained in the game for more than 10 minutes without another sub. Their defense collectively improved.
But Leal’s effort spearheaded that reversal.
“He’s had a really great week of practice. After the break, he came back, and I thought his two days of practice, he deserved to play more. And I just decided to play him. And he gave us a hell of a spark when he came in,” Woodson said. “I mean, just from a defensive standpoint. He did a lot of things that we didn’t do early in that spot.”
Leal has never really had a run of games playing extended minutes in his IU career. The 13 minutes he played Friday were his most since February 2022. Through more than three years in the program, he’s played more than 13 minutes in just 13 games. Leal hadn’t played at all this season before Johnson got hurt.
IU’s guard depth has been thin with Johnson out, along with Jakai Newton’s extended absence. The Hoosiers have been able to get by, for the most part, mainly leaning on Galloway and Cupps to run the backcourt, with CJ Gunn filling the gaps off the bench.
Johnson appears to be progressing closer to a return — Friday’s BTN Plus broadcast reported the sixth-year senior logged his first full-contact practice since the Harvard game on Thursday. Getting Johnson back will be massive for IU.
That, though, may further limit Leal’s already slim playing time. He clearly made a big difference for the Hoosiers on Friday, but may not get enough minutes to replicate that the rest of the season.
Woodson, after the game, said Leal’s performance could merit a further look going forward. But how the rest of the season plays out won’t change what happened Friday. When Kennesaw State took control in Assembly Hall and Indiana needed a spark, Leal stepped up.
“He’s a senior. He’s ready. I’ve seen it in practice,” Woodson said. “He hasn’t done anything in terms of me not wanting him to play. He’s been really good in practice. And he deserves to probably play a little bit more because he is playing well. And I thought tonight he came in and gave us the boost that we needed. So we’ll continue to keep our eyes on Anthony and see where we go with him.”