BLOOMINGTON – After Indiana's loss to Michigan on Sunday, its starting lineup was subject to a mountain of criticism for putting the Hoosiers in a big hole early for the second straight game. Coach Mike Woodson was asked about whether there would be lineup changes and he demurred.
Well, he decided to go with the same lineup and his faith in his starters was rewarded with Indiana's best opening stretch of the season and one of the best in the recent history of Indiana basketball. The Hoosiers scored the first 12 points of the game, held Penn State without a point for 4:47 to open the contest and was in front by 13 at the first media timeout. Thus ended any questions about whether the Hoosiers would be up for this game after coming out flat against the Wolverines. Nor did Indiana stop there. The Hoosiers continued extending the advantage until it hit as many as 31 with 1:35 left before halftime. At the break, the hosts lead 46-17.
There was some bad news for the Hoosiers, which came with about eight minutes left before the break. Point guard Rob Phinisee, who played outstanding on-ball defense and picked up two steals, came down with a rebound and appeared to injure his ankle. He didn't sink to the floor, but instead stopped walking and put his hand around the ankle, in obvious pain. He had to be helped off the floor and was immediately hustled to the locker room. Indiana might not need him tonight – fellow point guard Xavier Johnson has 10 points on 3-for-5 shooting plus three rebounds and two assists, but the Hoosiers' depth will take a hit if Phinisee is out for any length of time. Khristian Lander might get some run in the second half.
Indiana's defense was the key to its opening storm, holding the Nittany Lions to 17% shooting in the first half and 1 for 10 from 3-point range. By comparison, Penn State went 11 off 22 from deep the first time these teams met. One of the most encouraging signs was Indiana's ball-screen defense. After really struggling with their communication (and somewhat with their effort) against high ball screens when they played Michigan, the Hoosiers were outstanding against such sets to start tonight. Guards were fighting through screens, Trayce Jackson-Davis was guarding the rim well against the roll – he has four blocks (plus 13 points on 4-for-4 shooting) already – and Penn State had a hand in its face every time it attempted a 3.
But it wasn't just in specialty situations where the Hoosiers thrived defensively. Until John Harrar baited Jackson-Davis with a pump fake and scored plus a foul with 10:44 to play, Indiana put together arguably its best defensive stretch of the season. It guarded tenaciously on the perimeter, used active hands to force five Penn State turnovers, got back to cut off what few transition opportunities the Nittany Lions had and mostly cleaned the glass against a pretty good rebounding team. Indiana's pride took a hit when it gave up 80 points on its home floor to the Wolverines and it played like it wanted that pride back against the Nittany Lions.
While Indiana's offense was not as dominant as its defense, it was opportunistic, feisty and generally efficient. The Hoosiers shot 57% from the field – they shot 39.7% the first time these teams met – and got contributions from everywhere, with seven players getting into the scoring column. Indiana set the tone by going inside to Jackson-Davis for a right-handed hook that dropped on the game's first possession and Indiana finished with 16 points in the paint in the first half. But it wasn't just inside where Indiana thrived; the Hoosiers went 6 of 8 from 3-point range, including the two from Johnson and two from Tamar Bates, who had not hit a 3 since Dec. 12, missing six in a row in the interim. Bates has as many points tonight (six) as he did in his previous eight games combined.
Arguably the Hoosiers' best offensive player was Race Thompson, who scored 11 points on 5 of 7 from the field. Thompson made a 3 for the second straight game after hitting just three all season previously and if he's starting to truly add that to his arsenal after half a season of Mike Woodson encouraging him to shoot the ball, it could be a game-changer for Indiana's offense. One quibble with Thompson's performance: he was so good that on one post touch he drew a crowd of three defenders. Instead of passing to an open man, he tried to score anyway and missed. Thompson isn't used to so much defensive attention because he plays next to Trayce Jackson-Davis, but that's an area of his game that still needs work.
But that's really nit-picking at this point. Indiana just played the best overall half of basketball I've seen in five years covering the team. This team played to its ceiling for 20 minutes and it would take a monumental collapse for this to end in anything other than a statement win.