INDIANAPOLIS – Indiana is developing a habit of winning 50/50 games. When the game comes down to the wire and both teams have a chance to win, the Hoosiers seem to have that little extra burst of energy, that bit of extra confidence that allows them to pull out victories that are far from assured.
On Saturday, it was a little bit of confidence, a little bit of energy and a giant dollop of poise and pure talent from freshman guard Robert Phinisee that put the Hoosiers over the top at the end in a 71-68 win over Butler.
Phinisee's buzzer-beating 3-pointer from more than 30 feet away was remarkable not only for the fact that it went in, but for the way he shot it. Phinisee took the ball from a desperate Devonte Green with barely two seconds left, miles away from the basket, but the freshman wasn't fazed in the slightest. He rose up, got his shoulders square, and flicked his wrist like it was any other shot against air in practice. The temptation to panic and fire wildly in that situation must have been immense, but Phinisee was cool, calm and collected. There simply aren't many freshmen anywhere in the country capable of making that shot.
"I've been telling our staff on film, Phinisee has been as impressive as any guard I've seen," Butler coach LaVall Jordan said. "He's poised, a tough kid. He ended up with (the ball). I thought we did a good job containing, didn't let (Romeo) Langford get the ball, (Phinisee) heaved one in."
Phinisee has spent this year playing in Langford's shadow, just the second-best freshman guard on his own team. It's becoming more clear, however, that the Hoosiers' "other" freshman has a chance to be a difference-maker in his own right, not after Langford leaves for the NBA, but right now.
Of course, as spectacular as the McCutcheon product's game-winner was, the true star of this game was Juwan Morgan. Morgan made nearly every big shot for the Hoosiers other than the buzzer-beater. For the second straight season, he simply refused to let his team lose at the Crossroads Classic, scoring a career-high 35 points on just 14 shots and hitting a season-high four 3-pointers.
Langford has been so good this season that Morgan has been able to be a background player in some games. There will be games, however, when Langford gets bottled up and in those Morgan has the ability to carry the Hoosiers to wins. When he's knocking in shots from outside, there are few players more difficult to cover in the Big Ten. The Hoosiers shot a blistering 7 of 13 from 3-point range in the second half, including three massive 3s from Morgan, all from the same corner. Butler seemed to think he eventually had to cool off, but he never did.
For Morgan, it was just another day at the office.
"Every day is the same," Archie Miller said of coaching Morgan. "Game day is no different than practice. Very few guys that can eliminate moodiness, the ability not to feel tired. For about two years straight, through about 150 practices, that's what I get to see every day. Not that his game days are perfect. But the guy plays the right way."
So, for the first time in four games between Indiana and Butler at the Crossroads Classic, the higher-ranked team won. The atmosphere was notably anti-Indiana, with fans of Butler, Notre Dame and Purdue cheering against the Hoosiers, but Miller seemed ecstatic about the opportunity the event provides for his team.
"I tell you what, the environment in here is so NCAA tournament-esque," Miller said. "It's so passionate, it's kind of hard not to want to be in here. For Indiana and Indiana University, the city of Indianapolis, my feeling is in here this is a great environment for our team.
"I also think it's a hard, hard game for Indiana in here because I do think you come in here and you get that bulls-eye put right on you. Regardless of the circumstances, you have to play through that. It's a great opportunity for the other two teams in the state (Notre Dame and Butler). You're not going to get a chance to play them often if it's not set up like this."