BLOOMINGTON — The Indiana Hoosiers pulled harder than Michigan State in their last Big Ten tug-of-war.
This is becoming a trend that seemed to be a reach just a few weeks ago. But pulling away from the Spartans 82-69 on Sunday afternoon at Assembly Hall was the third straight win for a team in woe-is-me mode with three straight league losses.
The latest crush of a serious league opponent follows a 63-45 choke by Wisconsin and an 80-65 wallop by Illinois.
From the first moment, the trapped crowd yelled for the little things, expressing loud emotions as if these were radio station callsigns.
Now the Hoosiers are 13-6 and 4-4 in the league after staggering from long-term injuries to guard Xavier Johnson and forward Race Thompson. Thompson, who sustained a leg injury on January 5 and has not played since, made his first guest appearances totaling a few minutes. Fans gave him a standing ovation for breathing.
Senior Trayce Jackson-Davis, who has been playing at the highest level of his career, scored 31 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and passed for four assists. These adoring fans would give him a standing O for biting his fingernails.
At 6ft 9 tall, with the footwork of a dancer and the arm reach of a heavyweight boxer with confidence to match, Jackson-Davis simply challenges any team to try and cover him one-on-one in Low Post, Illinois’ Main Error. Michigan State played a lot of auxiliary defense with a second player checking in on Jackson-Davis.
“I feel like there isn’t a person in the country who can protect me,” Jackson-Davis said of any type of solo coverage Sunday.
That’s bolder than his usual understated comment, but with key injuries sure to have contributed to the previous three-game losing streak, Jackson-Davis improved his game and team at a critical juncture.
“It’s very special,” said security guard Trey Galloway as he observed Jackson-Davis up close.
Galloway, a senior, and Tamar Bates, a sophomore, each added 17 points, complementing Jackson-Davis’ inside game in the long run.
With two-fifths of the starting lineup sitting on the bench for most of the month, coach Mike Woodson was looking to salvage what he described as a “tailspin.” Others feared it might have symbolized burning.
“If you lose two starters, it’s just a shock to everyone,” Woodson said of the rest of the roster. “Mentally, we were slapped in the face.”
That may be a mixed metaphor, but it was true. It was time for others to have their turn.
“Practicing got even harder,” Woodson said. “I asked for more. They are not quitters. These guys are playing for something.”
That would be the Big Ten title and a place in the NCAA tournament.
Despite vociferous local support, the Hoosiers started slow against 13-7 Michigan State, shooting poorly for a time and falling behind 17-8, 25-16. The Spartans were heavily aided by 6-9 Joey Hauser’s 22 points. Hauser is a key transfer arrival from Marquette. But he didn’t get the kind of support from others that Jackson-Davis did.
Leading 39-32 at halftime, IU fended off several challenges before gaining a better handle on proceedings in the latter part of the second half.
That reaction may have been heralded by Bates’ baby daughter Leilani, who took part in the halftime crawl show and won the championship to the raucous accompaniment of the IU-centric audience.
Bates, who scored five 3-pointers, seemed almost as happy with her win as the Hoosiers.
“A comeback win,” Bates said of the little girl coming from an early deficit. “Your first competition ever. She is undefeated.”
It was a less dramatic comeback win in Indiana, albeit from the start, for IU as well, but while it’s too late to be undefeated, this stretch of great triumph shows the Hoosiers are still very much alive in the race for the Regular-season Big Ten crown.
Lew Freedman writes sports columns for The Tribune. Send comments to [email protected]