The identity of this Indiana basketball team is starting to show through two games in Big Ten play — and, it was a major weakness of the roster just two weeks ago.
Not only was Tuesday’s matchup with Michigan its first true road test, it was another physical Big Ten opponent and Indiana faced it head on without its starting point guard, much like Friday’s opener. Indiana answered the call — again — with a 78-75 win.
Indiana seemed to have its back against the wall all night. Despite a terrific first half shooting the ball, 10 turnovers led to a two-point deficit at the half.
Then, midway through the second half, it was a mini run from the Wolverines that stretched its lead to seven — tying the largest of the game by either team.
But, Indiana continued to fight and make big play after big play down the stretch.
“I thought we fought (tonight),” Indiana basketball head coach Mike Woodson said postgame. “My theme coming into tonight’s game was, you gotta come and set the tone like you did in the Maryland game and give yourself a chance to win. We turned the ball over a lot the first half. But that was the difference in the second half.”
Indiana shot 53.3 percent in the second half and limited its turnovers to just three in the final 20 minutes, and zero in the final 6:56.
That’s when Indiana’s toughness showed even more.
Tied at 60-all, Indiana made numerous big plays on both ends to come out with a win. That included going 8-of-10 from the free throw line and forcing four Michigan turnovers.
“I believe it was just confidence in ourselves,” Indiana basketball sophomore forward Malik Reneau said postgame of the team’s play over the final stretch “… Just the little plays, like steals from CJ Gunn and stuff like that.”
It was the bigs that, once again, made big plays in crunch time. Indiana went to Reneau for the majority of the second half as he poured in 11 of his 15 points after halftime. Then, it was Kel’el Ware on the block with 53 seconds left resulting in a tremendous sky hook finish to take a two-point lead.
“That’s just Coach Woodson trusting in me,” Reneau said. “He’s seen me do it multiple times and I told coach, ‘If I get on the blocks and I get enough time to go, I’m scoring,’ and he trusted in me.”
“He made a hell of a move to drop that bucket in. I thought that was the difference in us securing the win, because we needed a big bucket at that particular time,” Woodson said of Ware’s go-ahead bucket. “He’s made some big shots early in the season, but that’s just one of the few that he’s made. I just gotta think when you make shots like that, he’s got to understand that we believe in him and there’s a reason we’re going to him, and you got to come through. I thought he answered the bell tonight.”
Ware added 13 points and eight rebounds.
Freshman wing Mackenzie Mgbako had 11 points, including two free throws with 5.7 seconds left to make it a three-point game. It’s his third-straight game in double-figures after averaging just 5.0 points per game in the first five games.
But, the biggest contributions came from sophomore guard CJ Gunn. Gunn, who has struggled for the majority of his Indiana basketball career, came up big when IU needed him. He had eight points with two made 3s and four steals.
Gunn came into Tuesday’s matchup just 2-of-28 from three in his first 27 career games. He was 2-of-3 on Tuesday.
Winning on the road is big, period. You do it without your senior point guard and it’s even bigger. The toughness of this team has shined in the first two games of Big Ten play and it’s the identity that is starting to form for the Hoosiers.
“We’re a competitive team man. We are playing hard,” Woodson said. “I think after that UConn game man, that taught us that we have to play harder. They smacked us in the face and we paid for it. Since then, we’ve played a lot harder.”
“Just playing hard and tough on the road is really important,” Reneau added. “Because if you steal two, three games on the road, you’ll be sitting in a good spot in the Big Ten.”
Indiana moves to 7-1 overall and 2-0 in Big Ten play. A big non-conference matchup with Auburn on Saturday awaits.
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