by Jeremy Bauman / @JBauman13
Heading into its game against Illinois, the struggling Indiana Hoosiers (10-10, 1-6 in Big Ten play) knew they would have to bring their best effort against a bigger, stronger, more athletic, and, quite simply, more talented Illini team.
But hey, what else is new for the Hoosiers lately?
Nearly every single game that they play in the Big Ten Conference, the Hoosiers are undermanned for one reason or another. Lately the Hoosiers have caught the injury bug. Verdell Jones is out indefinitely and Maurice Creek is out for the year, again—both to knee injuries suffered against Wisconsin and Michigan, respectively.
As a senior who has been at this school from the beginning of the promising Eric Gordon days through the Kelvin Sampson debacle, I have seen the lowest of lows for this Indiana Hoosiers basketball program.
I’m not going to lie: The fan in me has had a tough time remaining positive about the situation here. It’s tough to cheer when you know that there ain’t much talent to cheer for—and that has absolutely been the case in my four years here.
The roster has been depleted numerous times—if I was to go through every instance that occurred, it would make your head spin, for sure.
But on Thursday night as the game was about to tip off, it finally felt as if I was in the same Assembly Hall that I was at during my freshman year when there was something to get really excited about, when we believed that we were supposed to win each and every game.
“By far the most important thing tonight, and I attempted to slap everybody’s hands that were in the building—I think I got half of them—were the fans,” said Coach Tom Crean after notching his first win over a ranked opponent at IU. “There is no other place in the country that would support a program that’s gone through what Indiana has gone through like Indiana has been supported.
“It was absolute bedlam in there from the beginning. It was really something and it just got better and better throughout the game, and if there was ever a time where you could give a game ball, or personally thank not only everybody heretonight but everybody who has been supporting this program for as long as they have…Tonight to get it like this says a lot and I’m really proud of the way our fans have stayed behind us and the way that they support us and the way that they were here tonight.”
The place was rocking again and along with stellar defensive effort, ball movement, and patience, IU had a chance to upend the #21 Illini heading into the second half in Bloomington.
Jordan Hulls (6-9 , 18 points) was knocking down triples, Christian Watford (5-14, 16 points) was clicking on all cylinders, and in turn the crowd gave the Hoosiers a much needed injection of life—one that they (OK, we) have been waiting to give our squad the whole season (or the last three).
Indiana, although down two at the break, had the lead for the majority of the first half and undoubtedly played its best all-around half of the year. They kept star point guard Demetri McCamey’s (2-11, 6 points) penetration at a minimum, and as a result he wasn’t able to create offense like he has been known to and was forced to shoot more outside shots than Illinois Coach Bruce Weber would have liked. Jeremie Richmond (4-8 for 9 points and 11 rebounds) on the other hand, was a major problem for the Hoosiers throughout the game because of his extreme versatility (on a side note, this kid has all the tools to be a great pro, including a great frame of mind). He had 8 first half points and helped keep the Illini afloat with his much improved ball-handling.
After a 32-30 first half, the pace slowed back down to the normal Big Ten speed. Chippy fouls were called on both ends and as a result both teams had difficulty finding any kind of rhythm. Points were unheard of until the 14:34 mark when Illinois forward Mike Davis scored the first basket of the half, extending the Illini lead to 34-30.
Midway through the second half the score was 39-36 Illinois. After a timeout, Jeremiah Rivers used a tricky ball-fake under the rim and maneuvered his way for a tricky deuce. After a few scoreless possessions by both teams, Jordan Hulls came down on the fast break and pulled up on the right side for three to give the Hoosiers their first lead of the second half with 7:15 to play and furthering the belief of an upset.
The Illini tried repeatedly to flex their muscles on the interior, but 7-footer Mike Tisdale struggled to hit his normally potent fall-away hook shot and in turn they lost most of their momentum.
When Jordan Hulls canned another trey from the top of the key with 5 minutes to go, the crowd erupted—the Hoosiers were up 4 but not out of the woods yet.
Paul then fired up a triple giving Illinois a three point lead, but the Hoosiers would not go away. Watford got to the line and converted a pair of free throws, cutting the deficit to 49-48. After a Paul miss, the Hoosiers ran the shot clock down and called TO with ten seconds left but the designed play for a Matt Roth triple was disrupted by solid defense.
A pick-and-roll between McCamey and Tisdale was executed perfectly at the other end, but Tisdale made the fatal error of bringing the ball down when he caught it in the lane, allowing the Hoosiers to shake the ball out of his hands and take a shot for the lead down the stretch.
The most unlikely candidate to score for Indiana was junior forward Tom Pritchard, who had scored just 31 points all year long coming into this game (despite being a starter), yet he managed to tap home a third-chance opportunity, giving the Hoosiers a 50-49 lead with 35.1 seconds to go.
That tap by Pritchard was indicative of the whole night for the Hoosiers, and, frankly, their whole season. The only way that this team can stay in the game against more talented opponents is by outworking them in hustle areas and never taking a play off. This isn’t the most talented Hoosier team,
Tisdale got the ball in the post with around 20 seconds to go, started his move, and then tried passing the ball to a cutting Jeremie Richmond, but the ball sailed out of bounds. The Hoosiers intense defense had officially rattled him to his breaking point.
DJ Richardson and Brandon Paul both got the shots that they wanted in the waning second, but it wasn’t to be.
It wasn’t exactly a flashback to freshman year, but these days anything positive is worth getting excited for. This game was full of effort, which is primarily why the fans responded so well.
After the (admittedly preposterous) court storming celebration—we’re Indiana, for god’s sake—I received a text from one of the biggest IU supporters I know, friend and fellow senior Andrew Gurmann:
“Yo Jeremy tonight is what brought me to Indiana. The pure feeling you get when you win in Assembly Hall. These kids rushed the court, but I just stood there in appreciation. Its Indiana basketball…Been that way for 100 years.”
I couldn’t have said it any better.