The Hoosiers finally snapped their five-game losing streak with a 74-64 win over the Maryland Terrapins with the help of an almost picture-perfect game from Xavier Johnson.
In the first half, Johnson set the tone by attacking off the pick-and-roll and firing off a floater in the lane. He did it once more, but this time found a cutting Trayce Jackson-Davis for the easy score. In just seven first-half minutes, Johnson scored four points with two assists and a turnover. However, his tenacious defense sent him to the bench with two fouls. He was not seen for the rest of the half.
“At the end of the day, it’s a long game early. … I can’t go anywhere with X. You know, I don’t have another point guard out there. So you got to sit him down,” head coach Mike Woodson said of his decision to relegate Johnson to the bench along with Jackson-Davis with foul trouble.
“So I think it was the right move for both of them. Give other guys an opportunity to step up and play,”
The long break could have affected Johnson’s momentum but it didn’t. The Pitt transfer sent a perfect lob to the hands of Jackson-Davis for a thundering alley-oop that reinvigorated the crowd to start the second half. On the next screen, he was on a mission. Johnson got downhill and soared through the lane for a monstrous dunk.
His two highlight plays and two made free-throws in the opening minutes led to a 12-2 run coming out of halftime. Later Johnson and the Hoosiers would catch fire. The team would make eleven straight field goals and ended a run shooting 13-of-15 in twelve minutes.
Johnson would end the second half alone with 20 points on 5-of-5 shooting and 3-of-3 from deep. His last three-pointer was a step-back three that extended the lead to 13, practically putting the final nail in the coffin. The moment resembled “The NBA Jam” video game when the ball would be on fire due to a player getting the “hot-hand.”
Just like the video game, once he got going, everything just looked right.
“I mean, like I said, when I got downhill, called the ball screens early, I mean, I saw it was opening up. And I got my teammates involved early. And they were actually hitting shots,” said Johnson.
The Woodbridge, Va. native had a near-perfect night after a performance in which he was far from it. Against Ohio State, Johnson committed six turnovers and shot 3-of-12 from the field. Tonight, it was a far different story. Johnson shot 7-of-7, 3-of-3 from beyond the arc, and 7-of-8 from the line. He was so close to being perfect and missed his second-to-last free-throw with 19 seconds left in the game.
“It hurt,” Johnson said jokingly of his only miss. “I was tired, but it hurt.”
Johnson finished the night with 24 points, six assists, a steal, and three turnovers. Without Rob Phinisee, Khristian Lander, and even Trey Galloway who assumed the point guard position briefly, the team needed this type of performance from their starter.
“Well, we needed it, I mean we’re short-handed with the two-point guards sitting on the sideline watching it with me,” said Woodson. “And for him to step up like he did and have the game after picking up two early fouls, man, I mean, you couldn’t have asked for a better performance. I’m very pleased.”
The recipe for the team’s success seems clear. The Hoosiers need Johnson to facilitate while also playing smart and under control. When the team wins, Johnson is averaging 11 points while shooting 44.1 percent from the field and 40.5 percent from deep. He also turns the ball over just 2.25 times per game.
In losses, Johnson averages 9.5 points on 30.8 percent shooting from the field and just 18.2 percent from downtown. in losses. He also turns it over 3.33 times per game.
Before tonight’s game, the Hoosiers were selected as one of the last four teams in the NCAA Tournament by Joe Lunardi of Bracketology. However, they still have work to do. They need the good side of Johnson to come alive in the last three games of the regular season.
In the eyes of his teammates, as Johnson goes, so goes IU.
“We’re definitely going to be hard to beat. When you get X going, that’s the head of a snake, for real,” said Race Thompson, who finished with 19 points and nine rebounds.
“You might say Trayce is the head of the snake, but it’s really X. We really go as he goes because he gets everybody involved. He gets everybody shots. And then when he goes 7 for 7 from the field, I mean, that’s really tough to beat. Your point guard is getting whatever he got, 24 points or whatever, it’s just going to be a hard team to beat.”
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