Despite Indiana getting off to its best start of any game all season, an inability to protect leads nearly cost the Hoosiers a must-have game against Nebraska in Lincoln.
The first half looked to be a breeze for the Hoosiers, leading by 12 points at halftime and carrying as much of an 18-point advantage while shooting 53.8% from 3-point range.
Then the defensive focus dropped, deep shots weren’t going down, and Nebraska had a 63-62 lead at the 9:39 mark of the second half. The rest of the game remained competitive, but Indiana closed it on a 22-13 run for the remainder, doing much of the work at the free-throw line to seal it.
“Had to deal with a lot of uncomfortable situations there late in the second half to put us in a tough spot,” Indiana coach Archie Miller said. “We got a couple key stops, we were able to execute, we made a couple free throws, we were able to win the game.”
Indiana beat Nebraska, 84-76, to earn its first true road win of the season and improve to 8-5 on the season and 3-3 in the Big Ten.
Protecting leads and control of the game have been a prevalent issue for Indiana throughout all of conference play in both its wins and losses. Most recently at No. 8 Wisconsin on Thursday, Indiana could not close the game and lost in double overtime.
Moreover, Indiana did not finish strong in its other two conference losses against Northwestern at home and at Illinois in late December. In each game Indiana had a lead in the final 10 minutes of the game.
Indiana also saw command of its home game against Penn State evaporate and needed overtime to win that one, too.
The difference with Sunday’s game against the Cornhuskers, though, was that lost control came early in the second half. This shows that no matter what point in the game it is, the Hoosiers struggle to protect their advantage.
Against Nebraska, Indiana took its foot off the gas offensively and got lazy on defense early in the second half, allowing Nebraska to climb back in it.
Starting at the 12:58 mark, when Indiana was up 60-51, Nebraska went on a 12-2 run comprised of nine points from the paint or free-throw line to earn the lead at 9:39, 63-62.
“Our effort getting back and our effort on the ball in the second half as they spread the floor and started to drive became problematic,” Miller said.
After a 7-for-13 showing from deep in the first half, Indiana fell in love with the 3-pointer after halftime, which hurt the team. The second half 3-point shooting display was much worse for the Hoosiers, only making 2 of 11.
Indiana started the game 7-for-9 from beyond the arc, but finished at just 37% from long range.
— The Hoosier Network (@TheHoosierNet) January 11, 2021
In that process, Indiana did not look for its star sophomore and best scorer, Trayce Jackson-Davis, much in the post. He scored nine of his 15 total points from the free-throw line and only took seven shots for the game.
Nebraska made getting the ball to Jackson-Davis very difficult, implementing a zone that double-teamed the sophomore in the paint every time he caught the ball. The Cornhuskers dared Indiana to shoot it from deep, which is a big reason why it became a close game.
Indiana overcame its breakdown due to a collective rebounding effort, outrebounding Nebraska by 11 despite a height disadvantage, and the Hoosiers only had eight turnovers.
Veteran guards Rob Phinisee and Al Durham were key in second-leading scorer Armaan Franklin’s second game missed due to injury. Phinisee played his best game of the season, leading the team with 18 points. Durham provided 17 points, too.
“Just being the upperclassmen, we have to step up,” Phinisee said of him and Durham. “We just took what the defense gave us.”
Phinisee and Durham’s effort were paramount to an extremely important game for Indiana. The Hoosiers could not afford to lose to Nebraska, who is at the bottom of the Big Ten standings with a 4-8 record and is 0-5 in conference.
With the Big Ten being the gauntlet it is, a loss to the Cornhuskers would have been a serious thorn in Indiana’s hopes of making the NCAA Tournament.
The Hoosiers are just under the halfway mark of the season and 10 of their remaining 14 games include teams that are currently ranked.