With 11:09 remaining in the game, Indiana trailed by 17 points and had a 1.5% chance of victory, according to ESPN’s win probability calculation. Xavier Johnson was in foul trouble from the start of the game, Trayce Jackson-Davis was struggling to score against or stop Hunter Dickinson, and the Hoosiers were not getting any help from the referees. Indiana appeared to be continuing its trend from the last month or so of turning in a half-assed performance with the season on the line.
And then everything changed, starting with a defensive rebound by Jordan Geronimo which led to a transition three from Xavier Johnson with just 11:02 left in the game. Indiana then went on a 28-4 run to take the lead for the first time since the first half and ended up holding on to beat the Wolverines 74-69, preserving its tournament hopes and extending the season at least one more day.
Here’s Three Things:
Grit, Luck, Curse, Health Issues, Whatever
Since Indiana’s last tournament appearance in 2016, it’s struggled to close out the tight games that separate NCAA Tournament teams from NIT teams. This year’s team seemed to be no different for a stretch there, losing seven of its last nine games prior to today’s matchup with the Wolverines, four of those by five points or fewer. Indiana fans and sports media personalities have spent the better part of the last five years trying to diagnose the issue, blaming everything from the team’s mental fortitude to an apparent curse without solving whatever has been plaguing the Hoosiers since Tom Crean’s firing.
This was the first time since Indiana’s losing streak began that it had both Trey Galloway and Rob Phinisee back in the lineup, which lends credence to my suggestion that injuries were the culprit this year. Regardless, Indiana overcame an incredible deficit today with its NCAA tournament hopes on the line in a game that presented many of the same challenges that have doomed the Hoosiers before. Xavier Johnson was in foul trouble, Trayce was struggling against another elite big, and Indiana was missing from the charity stripe early on. Michigan even threatened late, cutting the lead to two points with 44 seconds left after Indiana had taken the lead.
All the ingredients for a signature loss were there, and yet Indiana won. For a team that’s been haunted most of this season by the specter of Archie-ball, today’s win may have been enough to bring Indiana firmly into a new era. Hopefully an era that involves regular NCAA tournament appearances again.
Today’s game really got out of hand for Indiana when Xavier Johnson picked up his second foul with 11:16 left in the first half. Woodson made the tough decision to bench Johnson for the rest of the half, and it appeared to have backfired on him. Indiana was outscored 26-18 in that period. Similarly, Trayce Jackson-Davis struggled to figure out Michigan’s defense in the first half, scoring just five of his 24 points in the half on 2-6 FG shooting. Trayce’s defense wasn’t much better in the first half, as he allowed Dickson 13 points in the first 20 minute.
When Xavier Johnson was assessed a third foul under three minutes into the second half, Woodson had a decision to make. Breaking from his conservative first half approach, Woodson let Johnson stick it out. Though we’re unlikely to learn what exactly was said, he was also able to get through to Trayce at halftime and brought out the caliber of play we had come to expect from the preseason All-American. TJD allowed just two points from Dickinson in the second half, while adding 19 of his own for a game-high 24 points.
Having Johnson in the game surely helped his offensive output, but Trayce also had all four of his blocks in the second half, suggesting that he was able to find a whole different gear for the latter 20 minutes today. The ability to respond to adversity and make changes had eluded Trayce and the rest of Indiana lately, so today’s win goes a long way to dispelling concerns that this team cannot do what it takes to win.
I’m running out of hyperboles to describe Johnson’s importance to this year’s team, so I will just let the stats speak for themselves. Johnson had 17 points, 7 assists, 8 rebounds, and a steal tonight on 3-4 3-point shooting and a perfect night (4-4) from the free throw line. All four of his free throws came in the last five minutes of the game and the last two put the game out of reach for Michigan, extending Indiana’s lead to four points with nine seconds to play.
Simply put, Indiana has not had a guard like this since Yogi Ferrell. Romeo Langford and Armaan Franklin were maybe more talented, but nobody has been willing and able to take over games the way Johnson has here towards the end of the season. Had it not been for Johnson’s heroic performances against Maryland and Minnesota, Indiana wouldn’t even be a bubble team right now.
Johnson is sure to make another frustrating turnover or two and may even get into early foul trouble again before the season is over. But if it weren’t for his passionate, sometimes chaotic, play in the backcourt, this season would already be over. We should all be grateful for players like Xavier Johnson when they come around.