The Journal Gazette
Thursday, January 27, 2022 12:40 am

Hoosiers crush Penn State with dominant first half

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

BLOOMINGTON – Indiana did what it needed to do.

It's as simple as that. Coming off one of its worst performances of the season, with a bottom-half Big Ten team coming into Assembly Hall, the Hoosiers came out with as much energy as they have had all season, refusing to allow one bad game against Michigan to turn into a losing streak. The result was one of the program's best starts in recent memory and a drama-free 74-57 win that sent Indiana to 15-5 and 6-4 in Big Ten play at the mid-point of the conference schedule.

Did the Hoosiers let up somewhat in the second half? Would it have been better to finish off a 30-point victory rather than permitting Penn State close to within 14 in the final minutes? Is the injury to Rob Phinisee concerning? Yes, yes and yes. But all of those issues have to take a backseat, at least for tonight. Tonight, the Hoosiers got the win they needed and got a glimpse of their ceiling as a team. The performance was good enough to earn effusive praise from Penn State coach Micah Shrewsberry.

"Hats off to those guys," the former Purdue associate head coach said. "They played great. They were a hungry team. They were a gritty team. They were a tougher team and that’s what you saw to start the game. That’s what you saw to end the game. All credit goes to them in terms of how they played, what they did. They were ready to go from the start, and they dominated from start to finish."

The last time Indiana led by more against a Big Ten team at halftime than the 29-point margin it held tonight was in 2016 when it was up 48-18 against Ohio State. The night was full of little tidbits like that: the Hoosiers went 10 of 13 (77%) from 3-point range, the team's best mark from long distance on at least 10 made 3s since it went 15 of 19 in the Elite Eight against Kent State in 2002; Indiana's 10 blocks in the game (four for Trayce Jackson-Davis, all in the first half) were its most since March 2020 in the Big Ten Tournament against Nebraska. 

The Hoosiers were locked in from the opening tip, leading 12-0, 15-2, 22-5, 31-8 and 39-10. It was all the more impressive considering Indiana had spent the previous several days hearing (deserved) criticism about its recent slow starts and some (yours truly included) were wondering whether coach Mike Woodson should make some changes to the starting lineup. He refused and Indiana blitzed the Nittany Lions to the tune of a 13-point lead at the first media timeout.

It was exactly what Woodson was hoping for when he challenged his starters to be better after the loss to Michigan.

"We took it personally," Race Thompson said of Woodson's comments. "I think it really was just about energy, just calming down a little bit, playing with more energy, but at the same time being composed and really keying in on what they're doing. Again, it really just starts for us on defense. If we can get some stops, we're feeling good about ourselves, and then our offense will come."

Indiana indeed hung its hat on a stifling defense in the first half, limiting Penn State to just 17% shooting and a 1-of-10 mark from 3-point range. All of the issues in ball-screen coverage that cropped up against the Wolverines and cost the Hoosiers their first matchup with the Nittany Lions earlier this month were solved. Thompson and Jackson-Davis made sure of that, hedging hard on guards going over screens and then racing back to get in good position on the post. Jackson-Davis, who added to his Big Ten-leading blocks total, was a wall playing interior defense in that first period and Penn State got few good looks the entire half.

"This is what they do: they really shut people down," Shrewsberry said of Indiana. "Their defense has been fantastic. Trayce and Race are dominant at the rim which allows those guards to get up and pressure you a lot more. And that’s what they did. That’s what they did to us. Totally took us out of what we wanted to do. And then once it got going like that we were a little bit shell-shocked and that’s what happens."

The outstanding defensive performance down low gave Indiana's guards a chance to get their hands in passing lanes, get steals and get out in transition. Even on simple missed shots, the Hoosiers were pushing the ball at every opportunity. That's thanks mostly to Xavier Johnson, who has turned into a catalyst for an Indiana fastbreak offense that has done a terrific job of generating open looks. Indiana's bigs know to look for Johnson for outlet passes off of rebounds and when he gets the ball in the open court he heads to the basket without hesitation. The point guard had 19 points tonight and has 51 points, 14 assists, 14 rebounds, five steals and only five turnovers in his last three games. Thanks to him, Indiana is running the type of offense it wanted for much of the last four years but could never actually develop.

Indiana would like Johnson to be well-rested so he can play all-out all the time when he's in the game, but that might be easier said than done in the near future. Phinisee, who has done a solid job as the backup point guard, twisted his ankle near the end of the first half and had to be helped to the locker room. If he's out for any significant period of time, as he might well be, still-unproven sophomore Khristian Lander could have to pick up some of the slack.

Unfortunately for the Hoosiers, Woodson said Lander was unavailable tonight because of what the coach would only describe as a physical issue. Lander was in uniform, on the bench and warmed up with the team, but apparently could not play. If he can't go and Phinisee is out, Johnson will have to play huge minutes, with Trey Galloway likely taking some short turns at point guard to give the starter a little bit of a breather.

If Phinisee's injury was one dark cloud on Indiana's otherwise shining night, the team's second-half performance was another. After halftime, Penn State went 8 of 16 from 3-point range and out-rebounded the Hoosiers 21-7. Woodson admitted his team only played 20 good minutes.

"I wasn't real happy about it," Woodson said of the way his team played after halftime. "I don't think that (Penn State) did anything differently from an offensive standpoint. They were still trying to execute just like they did the first half. I just thought the first half we were locked in. We had 3-4 times we had miscues on switches (in the second half), and they made us pay for them. Again, you've got to stay with the game plan all the way through for 40. That's what you've got to commit yourselves to for 40 minutes."

Penn State even had an outside chance to claw its way back in the game when it capped a 13-0 run with a John Harrar layup with 3:15 left. In the end, however, the Hoosiers dug in for one final spurt and Johnson put the game away with a strong drive for a layup and a 3 on back-to-back possessions. When it actually mattered, Indiana executed tonight, though there is still another level of consistency for the Hoosiers to find. 

Overall, Indiana is in good position at the mid-point of the conference schedule, sitting above .500 in Big Ten play and well on the right side of the bubble. They had little to gain, NCAA-résumé-wise, from this game and much to lose, but they played like it was a must-win contest. That's what good teams do. More and more, Indiana appears to be one of those.


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