PORTLAND, Ore. — Verdell Jones and his teammates made an observation from the bench when Will Sheehey corralled the ball on the left baseline with just under 14 seconds remaining.
“We were just talking about it earlier. When he caught it, he smiled a second,” Jones said. “As soon as he caught it, he smiled.”
What followed after the smile was the shot that lifted Indiana into the Sweet 16 for the first time since its magical run to the Final Four in 2002.
Sheehey, left alone on the baseline after a failed attempt by Victor Oladipo to drive to the basket, picked up the loose ball and without hesitation buried an 11-footer.
“I knew it was in when it came off,” the IU sophomore said with a grin. “That’s how it should be. I was open, 12 seconds left, it’s just the perfect storm I guess.”
The smile, however, was not something Sheehey said he remembered following the Hoosiers’ 63-61 win over Virginia Commonwealth in the third round of the NCAA Tournament.
“I don’t know what they’re talking about,” he laughed. “Maybe I do that when I know it’s going in.”
Sheehey’s close friend and teammate Victor Oladipo, who spent countless offseason hours with him in Cook Hall during the offseason, wasn’t surprised at the result after the ball left his hands.
“He hits that midrange shot more than anyone I know,” Oladipo said. “As soon as he caught it, I knew it was going in. I could see it going in.”
Not the optimum way to win
Much was made about VCU’s “HAVOC” defense in the buildup to Saturday’s game and the pressure put the Hoosiers on the ropes more than once.
The Rams opened a nine-point lead on two occasions and forced the Hoosiers into a season-high 22 turnovers, but couldn’t put the game away.
VCU coach Shaka Smart credited IU’s high percentage shooting and strong defense as the two primary factors the Hoosiers were able to overcome the mishaps
“You’ve got to sustain your half court defense, which we did not do very well in the first half,” Smart said. “And then you’ve got to put the ball in the basket. We only scored 19 points in the second half and obviously that wasn’t quite enough.”
Indiana’s ability to hold VCU scoreless in the final 2:27 resulted in the Rams not being able to set up their press and cause turnovers in the closing minutes.
“If you look at the way we closed the game and the 25 percent shooting from the field and from the three, those were the things that really, really stood out for the reasons we won the game, I believe,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said.
The significance of the Sweet 16
Preseason prognostications barely had Indiana sniffing the top half of the Big Ten. And even as the wins piled up throughout the season, this group was picked against time and time again.
Some even wondered if the program was back despite wins three top five wins in the regular season. Saturday night answered the question definitively in Sheehey’s eyes.
“A hundred percent. I know everyone watches March Madness. We might do it a lot for the fans, but it’s really for our guys in this program,” he said. “We have seniors on the squad, Verdell [Jones], who can’t play with us, but we play for those guys and they’ve been through it all.”
Jones, who was all smiles as he took in the postgame scene in the locker room, agreed with Sheehey’s assessment on the significance of the win.
“It’s huge for us. It’s huge for this program. It’s huge for Coach Crean, the players in it,” Jones said. “It’s definitely one of the best feelings this year.”