CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Indiana controlled most of the first half Thursday at the State Farm Center over the Fighting Illini, but toward the end of the half, Illinois went on a 10-2 run to cut IU’s lead down to 39-28.
Then, Indiana forward Trayce Jackson-Davis made a hook shot with 1:19 left. Illinois responded with a score, and Jackson-Davis came back down and converted a layup through contact.
The Hoosiers still only held a 43-33 halftime advantage, but it could have been an even slimmer margin if not for Jackson-Davis’ run-stopping buckets.
After Illinois scored to make it an eight-point game to begin the second half, Jackson-Davis answered with a 3-point play. Indiana’s next bucket? You guessed it, a Jackson-Davis layup. Jackson-Davis continued with a dunk on IU’s following possession to keep the Hoosiers ahead 50-38.
Eleven consecutive Indiana points came from the hands of its preseason All-American. In a three-minute, 40-second span, Jackson-Davis refused to give Illinois life. IU cruised the rest of the way for an 80-65 victory.
“My thing is to put [Jackson-Davis] in position to be successful,” Indiana head coach Mike Woodson said after the game. “Tonight, we went to him, I rode him pretty well. Ninety percent of the plays were geared to get him the ball.”
Indiana indeed got Jackson-Davis the ball. He finished the game with 35 points, a career-high in Big Ten play. The big man added nine rebounds, five assists and three blocks to his season-high scoring performance.
A big key for Jackson-Davis’ stellar night was improved health. He’s dealt with a nagging back injury that caused him to miss three games earlier in the season. There have been moments this year when the injury clearly affected Jackson-Davis on the court, even though he’s been able to tough it out. As of late, Jackson-Davis has looked like his normal self again.
“The biggest thing for me is just getting healthier and healthier,” Jackson-Davis said. “This week was the first time that I've actually practiced in about a month.”
Jackson-Davis scored 26 of his 35 points in the final 21 minutes and 19 seconds of the game. The Illini could do nothing to stop him one-on-one and rarely sent an extra defender toward him.
“They didn’t double-team and in each timeout I was like, ‘You know the double team might be coming so we got to set our offense accordingly,’” Woodson said. “It never came and he made great plays around the rim.”
Teams seldom let Indiana’s star operate on the low block with single coverage, but Illinois put its big men on an island against Jackson-Davis on Thursday. Jackson-Davis hit the Illini with an array of jump hooks, spin moves and dunks.
“I’m just taking what the defense gives me honestly and then just making the right play,” Jackson-Davis said. “And tonight, they decided that they were gonna let me beat them.”
Indiana had a 54-32 advantage in the paint over Illinois. This was the Hoosiers’ second consecutive game outscoring their opponent by 20 or more points inside.
The high-low game between Jackson-Davis and Race Tho-...I mean Jordan Geronimo was rolling in Thursday’s showdown. Geronimo made his fourth career start, and he looks more comfortable by the game. The junior forward is stepping up while Race Thompson remains sidelined with a right leg injury.
“[Geronimo]’s playing really big for us,” Jackson-Davis said. “He could have really shut it down, especially after the first two games when he got thrown into the fire. He didn’t.
“Instead, he took coach's criticism, and he worked hard, and he’s showing us what the player he can be is.”
Geronimo had 13 points to go along with eight rebounds against Illinois. This performance follows a double-double against Wisconsin on Sunday.
“He’s moving around, he’s cleaning up stuff, he’s cutting when he needs to cut at the right time and Trayce is rewarding him with passes,” Woodson said.
This is the same Geronimo that got benched for the majority of the second half against Northwestern less than two weeks ago. Now, he’s doing a lot for the Hoosiers and is gaining chemistry with Jackson-Davis.
“I’ve been able to read what [Jackson-Davis] does, get used to his game,” Geronimo said. “I know where to be, know when to cut, when to seal and try to score.”
Geronimo’s emergence, along with improved health, has helped reopen Jackson-Davis’ game. The Hoosiers appeared to be drowning a week ago, but this team has hope after Thursday’s upset win.
If Indiana gets this version of Jackson-Davis while continuing to dominate the paint on both ends, this squad will find itself back near the top of the Big Ten.