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Xavier Johnson (center) watches from the bench during Indiana's loss to Penn State on Feb. 3, 2024. (HN photo/Shrithik Karthik)
Xavier Johnson (center) watches from the bench during Indiana's loss to Penn State on Feb. 3, 2024. (HN photo/Shrithik Karthik)

'Next-man mentality' isn't enough as shorthanded Hoosiers lose to Penn State

The absence of an experienced point guard was glaring in Indiana's second-half struggles

In Mike Woodson’s words, Indiana has not had a full deck of players since November. After starting captain Xavier Johnson went down with a left elbow injury — his second injury this season resulting in missed on-court action — and Malik Reneau with a right ankle injury during their win over Iowa, Indiana’s mentality of next-man-up was once again set to be on full display Saturday against Penn State. 

“We just haven’t had a full deck, and I don’t know if we’re ever going to have one, to be honest with you,” Woodson said during Friday’s media availability. “That next-man mentality has got to stay in play.”

Heading into Saturday’s matchup, the Big Ten availability report listed Johnson as out, and Reneau as questionable. As pregame warmups commenced, Reneau jogged out of the locker room with a wide smile on his face.

At 10:30 a.m., Hoosier fans entered Assembly Hall looking for yet another win over a Big Ten opponent, with chants of “let’s go Malik” pouring in from the student section, after learning that the star sophomore forward would be active. 

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Malik Reneau flexes for the crowd during Indiana's loss to Penn State on Feb. 3, 2024. (HN photo/Shrithik Karthik)

At 1:45 p.m., Hoosier fans erupted in boos and headed towards the exits, as Indiana (13-9, 5-6) fell to Penn State (11-11, 5-6) in Assembly Hall on Saturday afternoon, 85-71. The Nittany Lions handed Indiana its third loss at home, and its first to Penn State in Bloomington since 2014. 

“You gave up 85 points, you’re not beating anybody in the Big Ten doing that,” Woodson said postgame. “That’s not us, you know what I mean.” 

Despite the brutal loss, Indiana’s “next-man” was found in Kel’el Ware, in his second game back following an ankle injury. Completing his day with 25 points, 8-for-12 shooting and 11 rebounds, Ware contributed to many of Indiana’s best moments in the game, but it ultimately was not enough for the Hoosiers to get their sixth conference win. 

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Kel'el Ware reaches for a rebound during Indiana's loss to Penn State on Feb. 3, 2024. (HN photo/Shrithik Karthik)

Although seemingly still nursing a bit of an ankle injury, Reneau himself tallied 16 points, five rebounds and three assists in 33 minutes of play.

Heading into this game, Indiana was a six-point favorite over Penn State, even with the questionable status of Reneau and absence of Johnson. With more than half of Indiana’s season in the same situation, down a starting point guard, it seemed to be a moment in which the Hoosiers could be prepared for.

That seemed to be the case in the first half, as they headed into the locker room with the 41-37 lead. The second half, however, proved to be much different. 

It was a second half where the team needed its veteran point guard. Without Johnson, Indiana was disconnected. Penn State on the other hand, was playing with fire, even without its leading scorer.

“When teams go on runs, you have to really find ways to come together and get stops,” Trey Galloway said postgame. “I think us really kind of coming together and all five guys on the court coming together as one, that’s the biggest thing we need to do, and we didn’t do that today.”

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Trey Galloway handles the ball during Indiana's loss to Penn State on Feb. 3, 2024. (HN photo/Shrithik Karthik)

So where does Indiana go from here? Johnson has no timetable for a return, and Reneau and Ware are coming off of fairly fresh injuries. The Hoosiers are going on month four without a full deck with just a month away from the conference tournament.

Especially with Indiana’s dismal effort in the second half, it’s clear that among many things, the Hoosiers need a “next-man” to step up and lead the team down the stretch, to come together as one, and produce more fire on the court.

“I want more fire to my guys,” Woodson said. “They didn’t fight tonight in the second half and that’s kind of disappointing. That’s a game that I thought if we played well, we had a legitimate chance to win and I thought we did play well early on, and we just had too much slippage defensively (in) the second half.”

Indiana will have a big opportunity to come together and bounce back, as the Hoosiers will next face the Ohio State Buckeyes once again this season, this time in Columbus on Tuesday at 7 p.m.

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