A little over one year ago, I piled into a car with Matt Dollinger and Tom Kirby and headed west to Spaceship Assembly Hall for IU’s first post-Eric Gordon trip to Urbana-Champaign. Less than nine minutes later, Dollinger was begging me to go pull the car around.
I bring that up, because many of you have, at various points this season, asked for more visible improvement from the Indiana basketball team than what you’ve seen so far.
Well, I offer you this: Just 385 days after a 24-4 game-opening run begat a 76-45 pasting at the hands of the Illini, Indiana took what some considered an NCAA Tournament team inside the game’s last second — literally — before succumbing by just two points, 72-70 in one of the Big Ten’s toughest road environments.
No, this isn’t a moral victory. Moral victories are stupid. Really stupid. Annoyingly stupid. This was a loss, and surely a tough one to absorb.
But if you don’t look at this game and see the obvious improvement, then your eyes are closed.
The Hoosiers overcame a sluggish beginning with big early points from Jordan Hulls, who found his 3-point range to score 11 in the first half. Verdell Jones finished the period strong with 11 as well, and four assists.
We’ll always remember Devan Dumes’ halfcourt shot, when he poked the ball away from D.J. Richardson, chased down the loose ball and tied the game from midcourt, thumping his chest as his team skipped down the tunnel to halftime.
The shot was vital, obviously, because it capped a 16-4 Indiana run to end the half. But it also seemed like a turning point in the action, one that cued a more veteran performance from Indiana in the second half.
Yes, there were still turnovers, still head-scratching decisions. But there was also defensive focus, excellent individual performances and a collective team effort at the free-throw line (19-23) that has rarely been seen from this team in the last year-plus.
“We didn’t beat ourselves today and that’s the bottom line as you grow,” coach Tom Crean told Don Fischer on his postgame radio show. “You first have to learn how not to lose before you can win and we made a lot of strides in that area this week.”
Verdell Jones was immense, with 22 total points and a 10-of-12 mark from the charity stripe. Dumes and Hulls added 11 each off the bench and as a team, Indiana pulled down 17 offensive rebounds, had 22 points in the paint and outperformed Illinois 35-33 overall on the boards.
“Our confidence was high,” Crean said. “This team has to have an edge and an energy about them. And when they do, we play very well and we have a chance to win all the games that we’re in.”
In the end, Illinois won because IU had no answer for their post offense at times, and Demetri McCamey put in the kind of individual performance that made Kelvin Sampson so covet his services when the former was still balling up at St. Joseph.
You know, normal reasons for losing a basketball game. Isn’t that progress?