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Three Things: Indiana 84, Nebraska 76

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Indiana v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Woooooooo. You can exhale now.

It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t fun, but smile, baby, because that’s IU basketball in 2021. Indiana blew an 18-point lead against the Big Ten’s worst team, but buckled down in the final few minutes to survive its trip to Lincoln with an 84-76 win over Nebraska on Sunday night.

Let’s talk about some Things:

The Hoosiers really, really, really needed that game. And they got it.

We mentioned after the Penn State game how Indiana seemed intent to test the idea that there are no bad wins. The Hoosiers, it seems, have done that a few times this season. And yet, as tempting as it might be, it’s probably best to not overanalyze the trip to Nebraska. In this case, the W really is all that matters.

Sunday marked the end of a crucial, hugely-important four-game stretch for Indiana, which needed three wins in that span to position itself comfortably entering the teeth of the schedule. The Hoosiers followed through, beating Penn State, Maryland and Nebraska to even their conference record at 3-3. On Sunday, they played through late-game fatigue and closed out a game away from Assembly Hall. I realize that’s sorta eye-rollable, given Nebraska’s station in the league, but you take the road wins where you can get them — especially the ones you’re supposed to win.

The past four games were seldom pretty, often maddening and occasionally downright discouraging. But three of them were wins, so … whatever. In this case, take the road win, get the hell out of there, hop on the plane and start thinking about Purdue.

Confidence seems to be building among the players who need it most

Don’t look now, but Rob Phinisee and Jerome Hunter are beginning to stack good games, one after another.

In Phinisee’s case, Sunday featured some of the best basketball he’s played during his time at IU. He was aggressive and confident — the version of the player that was beginning to emerge two years ago. Phinisee scored 14 of his career-high 18 points across the first 10 minutes of the game, helping IU to the strong start it needed. He was eager to shoot and was quick to take advantage of spots where he could do so. The scoring was obviously good and important, but maybe the best part of Phinisee’s performance was the way he played through a lower-leg injury during the second half. That’s an example of toughness, and this program needs more of it. So that was good to see.

In Hunter’s case, Sunday was the second straight game in which he’s performed well over extended minutes. He authored the most important sequence of the night when he grabbed his own miss off a baseline jumper and went to the rim for a huge putback that gave IU a four-point lead with 93 seconds remaining. And best of all? Hunter didn’t have a single foul on the night. Fouling has been a problem for him, so it was also good to see a pretty clean stat line from the redshirt sophomore.

Indiana hasn’t consistently played great defense in the league. Sunday was the latest example.

Before we talk defense, let’s talk offense. The Hoosiers shot out of their minds during the first half, drilling seven of their first nine 3-pointers. But, predictably, those shots dried up in the second half and the misses turned into transition offense for the Huskers. And for IU, the transition resistance was nearly non-existent.

IU also struggled to stop one-on-one drives as Nebraska’s perimeter-heavy halfcourt sets tested the limits of the pack-line. It wasn’t a great defensive showing for the Hoosiers, who have held only one of their first six conference opponents under a point per possession. At this point, per BartTorvik.com, IU’s defensive efficiency ranks eighth in the Big Ten during conference play. That’s not good enough — not for a scoring-challenged group that wants defense to be the identity of the program. An elite defense can help cover up a lot of warts — and IU has plenty of blemishes — but, lately, the defense has been (at best) OK-to-pretty good. At times, like for chunks of Sunday’s game, it hasn’t been very good at all. So that’s something to monitor in the games ahead.

Oh, and there’s a big one looming on Thursday.