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Xavier Johnson brings the ball up during Indiana's loss to Nebraska in the Big Ten Tournament on March 15, 2024. (HN photo/Nicholas McCarry)
Xavier Johnson brings the ball up during Indiana's loss to Nebraska in the Big Ten Tournament on March 15, 2024. (HN photo/Nicholas McCarry)

'I'm grateful': Departing seniors look back on Indiana careers after Big Ten Tournament loss

Friday's defeat to Nebraska likely marked the final college game for Xavier Johnson and Anthony Walker

MINNEAPOLIS – With 10:34 left in Friday’s Big Ten quarterfinal, Nebraska’s Keisei Tominaga hit the stepback corner jumper for two. As the majority of the Target Center crowd of Cornhusker fans rose to their feet, Indiana guard Xavier Johnson walked down the court alongside the Nebraska bench, waving up his arms in shock. 

And that shock was felt throughout the Indiana bench, as Johnson and Anthony Walker headed to the bench one final time in an Indiana uniform, as Nebraska had snatched away any hopes of the Hoosiers advancing in the Big Ten tournament with a 93-66 win on Friday night. 

With nothing seemingly clicking for Indiana throughout the night, everything for Nebraska seemingly was. 

With 12 made 3s alone in the first half, the Cornhuskers seemed to have quickly shut the door on Indiana’s chances, closing out the first half on a 17-0 run and a 50-27 halftime lead. Overall, Nebraska drained 14 3s and held Indiana to five made 3s out of 20 attempts to cruise toward the semi-final of the conference tournament. 

Anthony Walker dunks during Indiana's win over Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament on March 14, 2024. (HN photo/Nicholas McCarry)

Following the postgame handshakes, the Hoosiers gathered for one final team huddle on the center of the court of the Target Center, and emotions were running high. 

“[There were] a lot of ‘I love yous,’ and ‘it was a great season,’ and a lot of hugs,” forward Malik Reneau said regarding the postgame huddle. “We had a long season and a rough season. All I got is that it’s just been rough for us, and we just tried to give it our all for the last game.”

And it was a final game that carried a lot of weight. Not only was it most likely Indiana’s final action on the court this season (Indiana would reportedly turn down an NIT invite) but it was also the final 40 collegiate minutes of basketball that seniors Johnson and Walker would play. 

Johnson collected eight points, five rebounds and five assists in the loss, and a limited Walker finished with four points and two rebounds in his 11 minutes of play. 

“I’ve got tears in my eyes, but I’m grateful,” Walker said postgame. “I’m grateful. It was a long ride, a fun ride. I got to do it with the people I love and the people that want nothing but the best for me.” 

Walker, a senior forward for the Hoosiers, joined the team this past summer following a four-year career at Miami. 

Despite only one year with Indiana, as a veteran, Walker’s presence was immensely felt. With the Hoosiers being a primarily young team, Walker, along with Johnson, set themselves as the leaders with the added experience that the Hoosiers desperately needed this season.

“They were our people we looked up to because they were the older ones. They knew what they were doing,” Reneau said emotionally postgame. “That’s who I really looked up to, and it hurts that the season is over and we have no clue what is going through their head and what their future for them is going to be, so it’s just tough when you don’t know anything.” 

While there may be many unknowns, if there is one thing that is known, it is that Johnson and Walker’s story is by no means set to be finished any time soon. 

Malik Reneau helps Xavier Johnson up during Indiana's loss to Nebraska in the Big Ten Tournament on March 15, 2024. (HN photo/Nicholas McCarry)

Since being Johnson’s shadow in his senior year of high school during his visit at the University of Pittsburgh, to now where the two conclude their collegiate careers side-by-side, it is clear that the two have created a bond for a lifetime. 

“[Xavier was] a huge reason why I came here, I wanted to end it with him,” Walker said. “Knowing the player he is and the person he is, he’s just overall a positive person. This won’t be the last time we see each other on the basketball court. We may not be on the same team, but we’ll be on the court together very soon and I wish nothing but the best for him.” 

Johnson’s career as an Indiana Hoosier was in no doubt a journey that many could look at and simply ask: why? 

Why not decide to hang up the sneakers following a broken foot resulting in missing the majority of the 2022-23 season, and suffering ankle and elbow injuries also resulting in missed playing time this season? 

Well that’s simple. Johnson is a leader, not a quitter. 

“I look at the last two years with him, and even last year, him not playing as much for us, he’s just always been there in spirit, and he’s worked his butt (off),” Indiana head coach Mike Woodson said postgame. “I just feel for him because he just wasn’t able to fulfill his dream in terms of completing his college career as a basketball player because he was hurt so much.” 

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Anthony Walker cheers during Indiana's win over Michigan on Dec. 5, 2023. (HN photo/Kallan Graybill)

Injuries aside, Johnson’s value to the team proved to be irreplaceable. Following Johnson’s return against Wisconsin on Feb. 27, Indiana went on to win five consecutive games, rounding it out at the quarterfinal of the Big Ten tournament.

Now looking ahead, there is a lot of uncertainty on where this Indiana team will end up in the upcoming season. But one thing is for certain, and that is that no matter what, this Indiana team will stick together. And it’s experiences like this season, going through countless ups and downs, that unbreakable bonds are formed.

“I’m just grateful that I made this decision,” Walker said. “I’m grateful that the coaching staff recruited the players that they did, that I could make the friends that I’ve made.

“These are friends that are going to be in my life forever.”

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