COLUMBUS, Ohio — During the season, no lead has been safe for IU men’s basketball. Saturday afternoon at Ohio State wasn’t any different.
At the under-12-minute media timeout in the first half, the Hoosiers had missed just two shots and had a commanding 17-point lead against the Buckeyes. IU took a 14-point lead into the half with four starters already in double figures.
In the second half, the Buckeyes battled back, and the Hoosiers let their once-sizable lead slip away, but IU wouldn’t let this game get away on the final day of the regular season.
“I’m proud of the way our players played,” IU Coach Tom Crean said. “Their engagement was high. Eight o’clock this morning, we could have tipped it off then, and those guys would have been ready to go. They were fantastic.”
IU couldn’t have asked for a better start offensively Saturday at Value City Arena. The Hoosiers scored on 92 percent of their possessions in the first seven minutes of the game and only committed one turnover.
Junior guard Robert Johnson made his first six shots to get the Hoosiers in rhythm on offense. Fellow junior guards James Blackmon Jr. and Josh Newkirk aided Johnson in the first half, and the Hoosiers moved the ball efficiently, which led to open looks from everywhere on the court.
“They were making tough shots and hitting threes, and that kind of killed us,” Ohio State sophomore guard C.J. Jackson said. “We knew that they were a good team that could make shots, and that started off early.”
The Hoosiers shot 65 percent in the first half. Sophomore center Thomas Bryant also had 14 points to join the trio of junior guards in double-digit scoring.
IU’s blistering shooting percentage in the first half would only get the Hoosiers so far because they came out flat to start the second half. Ohio State used a 22-7 run and made eight of 11 shots out of the halftime to take a 62-61 lead with under 12 minutes to play.
However, the Buckeye lead didn’t last long. With the game tied and fewer than nine minutes to play, Johnson caught fire once again. A jumper and a 3-pointer by Johnson on back-to-back possessions extended the IU lead to five. Sophomore forward Juwan Morgan built off Johnson’s play by going on a 5-0 run by himself to boost the IU lead back to 10.
“It was good for our guys to see that we could make the stops when we needed,” Crean said. “They were really locked in. The first step on defense and the ball movement were great. They never brought any panic and showed tremendous confidence.”
IU was able to maintain its lead down the stretch and didn’t turn the ball over in key situations like the Hoosiers have all year. Johnson said limiting turnovers is one of the main points for them down the stretch if they want to string some wins together.
The IU starters accounted for 93 of IU’s 96 points Saturday. A lone 3-pointer from freshman guard Devonte Green was the extent of the bench production. Johnson led IU in scoring with 26 points while connecting on five of eight from beyond the arc, and Blackmon Jr. added 22 of his own.
With the win Saturday, IU leapfrogged Ohio State to get to 10th place in the Big Ten standings. Nebraska’s loss at Michigan on Sunday guranteed IU a first round bye in the Big Ten Tournament, and the Hoosiers will face the No. 7 seed Iowa Hawkeyes on Thursday.
IU faced Iowa once earlier in the season, and lost the matchup at Iowa, 96-90, on Feb. 21 in overtime.
The Hoosiers are confident they can be difference makers in Washington, D.C., next week.
“With a team like us, we can get hot fast,” Blackmon Jr. said. “It can be a start to a run if we all buy in.”