Everything was going perfectly fine for Indiana against No. 9 Penn State at home on Sunday until it wasn’t.
Indiana had total control of the first half, owning double-digit leads for much of it. The biggest lead was 19, when it was 37-18 with 2:16 left before halftime.
Penn State then went from that last portion of the first half through the first three minutes of the second period on an 18-0 run to make it a one-point game and an eventual lead of 48-42 at the 12:16 mark.
Often, this would have been a breaking point for Indiana. Losing leads in the second half is something that has typically been a killer for the Hoosiers, with the inability to bounce back from there.
Sunday was different.
From that point on, Indiana outscored the Nittany Lions 26-12 and secured a comfortable win over a top-10 team. The result is a testament to the team’s growth in toughness and ability to finish off opponents.
“We got off to a great start,” Indiana head coach Archie Miller said. “But to come out in the second half, we took a huge punch. That was, at times this season, that punch has hurt us a lot more. We weren’t shook. We found a way to kind of hang in there. We had a lot of guys step up and make some plays.”
There were moments where Indiana left the door open a bit down the stretch for a potential Penn State comeback, but ultimately Indiana did what it needed to do and got the job done. In the last two minutes, the Hoosiers made nine of 12 free throws and forced Penn State to shoot 2-for-8 from the field.
Indiana hasn’t had that same finishing ability for much of the season.
.@ChefBoyArGreen is in the building this afternoon. ?
He leads the way with 9 points at the break, and IU is cruising on the ninth best team in the country.
— The Hoosier Network (@TheHoosierNet) February 23, 2020
The best example comes from Jan. 26, when Indiana hosted another top-25 team in Bloomington on a Sunday afternoon in Maryland. In that game, Indiana blew a 74-67 lead to the Terrapins in the final 2:37. Maryland outscored Indiana 10-2 in that stretch.
What made these two games different for Indiana is the toughness aspect shown today with much of the work being done on the boards and limiting turnovers.
Penn State outrebounded Indiana by two, but Indiana got some key rebounds. Justin Smith was a spark for the team’s energy level with his rebounding effort, with eight total and six in the second half. Smith’s defensive presence resulted in two steals as well.
“The hustle plays build on momentum,” Smith said. “And usually it’s on the defensive end. So just those extra hustle plays gets us an extra stop or rebound. It just gives us some energy and some momentum to get going.”
— Kurt Spitler (@kurt_spitler) February 23, 2020
Trayce Jackson-Davis and Rob Phinisee showed plenty of grit too. Jackson-Davis had a team-high 10 rebounds coupled with 13 points in a double-double effort. Phinisee had a tremendous defensive outing too with a great rebounding game for a guard, with five boards as well as five steals.
Additionally, Indiana was relatively under control with the ball, only committing 12 turnovers compared to its season average of 13. This was key in maintaining the lead.
“I really think we’ve taken care of the ball a lot better,” Jackson-Davis said, “especially our guards have been really good.”
The improved defensive effort Sunday, and as of late, is indicative of Indiana trending in the right direction at the right time.
After Sunday, Indiana is 18-9 overall with an 8-8 conference record. With five regular season games and an indefinite amount of Big Ten Tournament games left there are no guarantees, but the Hoosiers have dramatically improved the odds for their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2016 after winning three of their past four.
It’s been an up-and-down season with plenty of highs and lows including a four-game losing streak not too long ago, but it seems as if Indiana’s mental toughness is under control.
“We lose a couple in a row and everybody counts us out, everybody wants to freak out,” Smith said. “But it’s always how you bounce back. And we responded really well. And we’re just going to build on this momentum going forward.”