CINCINNATI — In three games, Indiana point guard Xavier Johnson has taken Hoosiers fans on a ride.
The deepest lows and the highest highs, often in the same game.
The Johnson coaster was on display in full glory during Indiana’s 81-79 win at No. 12 Xavier on Friday. And who knows? The drive could resume with a short break when the Hoosiers play Miami, Ohio at 5:30 p.m. Sunday at the Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
Although Trayce converted Jackson-Davis inside the suit with metronomic consequence, it was Johnson who helped unlock Xavier’s packline defense.
While the rest of the Hoosiers were largely static aside from Jackson-Davis, Johnson attacked the rim. Of his seven consecutive field goals, five came from the sidelines. He went on to score 23 points.
Although Johnson only made two 3-pointers, the last one was effective. Just under the seven-minute mark, Xavier switched to a zone defense as Indiana struggled from within 3-point range.
Johnson drilled a 3-pointer against the zone and the Musketeers largely gave up the gambit.
Johnson also helped the Hoosiers take the final lead by pulling a foul at 5:26, resulting in two free throws to make it 69-66. Johnson immediately followed up with a steal and a bucket to make it 71-66 with 5:13 left. Indiana never caught up again.
The production, the energy? Johnson delivered as you would expect from a senior point guard.
“Xavier Johnson is a really good player. He had 23. Xavier is a very good guard. The experience he and Trayce[bring]has been very difficult for our defense,” said Xavier coach Sean Miller.
It was combustible energy, however, and while smoke never turned to fire for the Hoosiers, Johnson also contributed to some harrowing moments.
In the first half, with Xavier in control, Johnson was awarded a technical foul when he looked at Xavier’s bench after a 3-pointer. His 3-point mark pulled the Hoosiers within one, but the technician handed Xavier a four-point gift and helped the Musketeers take the lead at half-time.
In the second half, with Indiana defending a six-point lead with less than two minutes left, Xavier put on a press. The Hoosiers broke it, but Johnson still turned it around when Indiana settled his semi-judicial offense. During the steal, Johnson fouled at the other end and suddenly Xavier had possession of the ball.
Another foul and missed free throw (along with two missed free throws by Malik Reneau) in the final two minutes helped Xavier get a shot at the win, but Indiana survived.
The wild ride for Johnson against Xavier — who had seven rebounds, two assists but also four turnovers — came after Johnson struggled in Indiana’s wins over Morehead State and Bethune-Cookman, scoring 11 points combined in both contests.
Johnson has a wide variance in form, but Indiana’s coach Mike Woodson emphasized the highs over the lows.
“It was sporadic here and there, but for the most part it was solid. I was on X after he got the tech and then we had a botched game where we didn’t switch properly and that cost us a big bucket,” Woodson said. “But for the most part, X was solid. He did everything we needed from him to secure the win, so I’m happy.”
Indiana will be hoping to get the best out of Johnson as it advances its second of four games in seven days.
The Miami competition is the first of three games in the second annual Hoosier Classic.
Instead of the two-day, four-team tournament that existed during the Bob Knight era, this Hoosier Classic is a round-robin tournament featuring Indiana, Miami, Little Rock and Jackson State.
Each team will play against each other. Indiana plays Miami in Indianapolis and hosts Little Rock (Wednesday) and Jackson State (Friday) in Bloomington. Miami is home to both Little Rock and Jackson State while Little Rock is home to Jackson State.
The game streak doesn’t end until Nov. 30, though Indiana’s participation wrapped up after Friday’s game against Jackson State.
Coached by former Indiana assistant Travis Steele, Miami had a difficult start to the season. The RedHawks (1-3) did not beat a Division I team. Her only win was against NAIA Goshen College. One of the losses was close, a seven-point loss to Georgia.
Miami has a strong Indiana contingent. Leading scorer Mekhi Lairy (16.5) was the all-time leading scorer in the city of Evansville as a Bosse All-Star. Freshman guard Billy Smith (9.8) played at Brebeuf in Indianapolis. His classmate Ryan Mabrey played at La Lumiere in LaPorte.
Woodson just wants the Hoosiers to focus with 48 hours between games.
“We cannot run away from the schedule. They just take them one game at a time and one practice at a time. That’s all you can do,” Woodson said.