Indiana overcomes injuries to gut out a 74-68 win against Iowa

  • 01/31/2024 7:51 am in

Mackenzie Mgbako stood with his hands on his head. Anthony Leal gestured to his teammates to get in closer to each other to block the cameras out. Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall was silent, save for some scattered whispers.

Xavier Johnson was writhing on the floor in pain, and all his team could do was watch.

Mike Woodson walked over to his captain and, after a few minutes, watched as Johnson walked off the floor with his jersey covering his face and his left arm held against his body. The sight wasn’t altogether unfamiliar to Woodson or the fans at Assembly Hall — they had seen Malik Reneau exit similarly not even two hours before.

After playing for barely the first three minutes of the game, Reneau went down after landing awkwardly on his right foot. His teammates watched as he hobbled around before falling to the ground, sending Assembly Hall into a hush. After a brief period in the locker room, Reneau returned to the end of the bench but left just as quickly, using crutches sporting an ice wrap around his right foot.

He didn’t return to the court for the rest of the night.

Woodson said postgame he didn’t know the severity of either player’s injuries.

“If we have to wait for them, we have to wait for them,” he said. “So guys that have been sitting over there, hadn’t played a whole lot, they’ve got to step in and help us win basketball games because that’s what it’s all about at the end of the day.”

True to Woodson’s words, despite the adversity and mental toll the starters’ injuries brought to the rest of the Hoosiers, they gutted out a win. Indiana took down Iowa for the first time in Mike Woodson’s tenure, scrapping out a 74-68 on the backs of Kel’el Ware and Anthony Leal.

“It was a way to rally us all together,” Leal said about Reneau and Johnson’s injuries. “One guy goes down, we know the next one’s got to step up.”

Never did Woodson’s “next man up” motto ring so true as it did Tuesday night.

Ware, just returning from a lower leg injury that kept him sidelined for two games, battled through his own painful moments to notch his eighth double-double of the season. His 23 points and 10 rebounds were even more impactful due to the level of emotion the sophomore showed; not one to typically fire his teammates up, Ware didn’t hold back against the Hawkeyes.

“I liked it a lot,” Gabe Cupps said. “That’s the thing we need from him. He’s obviously super talented, super skilled. And a lot of people’s knock on him is that he’s not tough. And I think he shows it in spurts, but once he can be consistent in that — and he showed that tonight — he’s an unstoppable player.”

The big man essentially had the interior all to himself with the absence of Reneau, and he stepped up in just about every way. But it was also something of a typical night for Ware. He’s known for his monster blocks and put-back dunks and is a consistent point-scorer for the Hoosiers.

The person for whom it wasn’t a typical night? Anthony Leal.

Leal, who came into the game averaging 1.8 points per game, scored a career-high 13 points on 3-for-4 shooting from beyond the arc. A career-high seven rebounds further bolstered his night. He got the game ball from Woodson.

“Where I come from in the NBA, you call that a true pro,” Woodson said. “He’s been a true, true teammate. And guys like that, it’s easy to coach. It’s easy to throw them in the game and feel good about it because you know what you’re going to get based on how he performs in practice. And he’s earned the right to play, and that’s why I’m playing him.”

Leal has put in the work in his four years as a Hoosier, earning a reputation as a leader in the locker room and the ultimate hype man on the bench. Now, he’s stepping into a new role of reliable presence off the bench. His maturity, experience and belief in himself and his teammates means he doesn’t take the moments for granted and will do anything he needs to to come through for his team.

“I think just really coming to work every day and understanding me just putting this jersey on for practice, even, is more than a dream come true,” Leal said. “It’s what I’ve wanted to do since I was first touching a basketball. So just trusting God and loving my teammates and this jersey and this school.”

Indiana’s win over Iowa was a sign that the Hoosiers know how to rally around each other and come together for a victory. But the injuries to Reneau and Johnson are dark clouds hanging above the team. No one knows what will happen yet, but one thing is sure: things could look a whole lot different for the Hoosiers in the coming games if they don’t have two of their starters available.

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