Indiana freshman point guard Robert Phinisee set a screen and then stood open at the top of the arc. He waited for the pass from Romeo Langford, took his classmate’s assist in stride, and knocked down the go-ahead 3-pointer in IU’s come-from-behind 68-67 victory against Louisville.
It was Phinisee’s third 3-pointer of the game, on a day when the Hoosiers (8-2, 2-0 B1G) struggled to connect from distance. All three were instrumental in helping Indiana to a crucial victory, as an earlier 3-pointer gave the Hoosiers their first lead of the game — 49-47 with 8:36 remaining.
“The play really wasn’t designed for that,” Phinisee said of the play. “I saw my guy drop back in. I just took the open shot and made it.”
For the third time this week, Indiana won by less than two points against a quality power-conference opponent. In all three games, the Hoosiers erased legitimate deficits — and it has been Phinisee down the stretch that has helped IU to victory in wins against Penn State and Louisville.
Phinisee is figuring it out. It hasn’t all come together just yet for the 6-foot-2 guard, as seen by a quiet performance in 28 minutes against Northwestern last week. But the pieces are starting to form and his confidence appears to be growing. A game-winning shot for Indiana’s first win vs. Louisville since 2002? That should only help.
“Rob did a heck of a job I thought in general,” head coach Archie Miller said. “He only turned it over one time, six defensive rebounds. We need him to hunt more shots. He’s very reluctant right now to shoot unless he’s wide open. He’s a good shooter. The two that he hit in the second half were big. I was glad that he read it. Clearly the shot at the top was really well executed. He stepped in and drilled it.
In large part, Phinisee has been able to emerge because of a preseason injury to junior Devonte Green. Because of the injury and impressive moments from Phinisee, it has been Green who has come off the bench for these Hoosiers. Aside from a two-point, four-turnover effort at Duke, the play of Phinisee has been productive and dependable for a freshman point guard in early December.
“There’s very few freshmen guards that can do what he does for 33 minutes in terms of the defensive side of the ball, which we ask him to do,” Miller said. “He’s also a tough kid. You don’t really know how tough a guy is, what they’re made of, until you get them going. He’s taking advantage of the opportunities he’s been given.”
Saturday was a dogfight, and a display of basketball that Indiana figures to play all season long. The Hoosiers are buoyed by intelligent, tenacious defense — but lapses and weaknesses offensively have not allowed Miller’s team to win many games comfortably. Hiccups were, and still are, expected with Indiana’s freshmen. They did not play well against Duke, but not many do. The resurgence shown by both Langford and Phinisee has been impressive, and a main reason why Indiana should enter the polls on Monday.
“It started in the summer when they came in willing to work, willing to learn,” Juwan Morgan said of IU’s freshmen. “Closer and closer to the Big Ten, they’re becoming more like veterans. We can’t call them freshmen any more because the plays they’re making down the stretch are big plays for us. They still have mistakes here or there, but they always make up for them.”
One last challenge awaits in the calendar year for these Hoosiers, as Butler will meet Indiana in the Crossroads Classic on Saturday in Indianapolis. In preparation, the Bulldogs will see a young IU team that suffers from streaky offensive play. But they will also see an Indiana squad that boasts an ever-growing ceiling.
“He continues to do a really good job for us,” Miller said of Phinisee. “He had a good week. Our Penn State game, this game. He was big in the last four minutes of the game. You need your point guard to be able to do that. He’s been a great, great addition to the program all the way around, on and off the floor.”