Indiana’s late-game defense quiets alarms in 74-70 win against Wisconsin

  • 02/28/2024 8:00 am in

Assembly Hall was a mess with 10:06 to play.

An in-arena alarm in the balcony forced both teams to stop play as security escorted fans out of the arena because of state law. It was one of the oddest things to happen in Assembly in recent years, but after a short intermission, fans were allowed to come back into the building and return to their seats.

“I want to thank our fan base, the crowd, for going through what we all went through and still came back into the game and gave us the support we needed to get over the hump and win the game,” Mike Woodson said postgame. “I truly thank the fans.”

Indiana managed to quiet the recently blaring alarms around the program, snapping a four-game losing streak with a 74-70 win against Wisconsin. It was Indiana’s defense that took the Hoosiers home down the stretch. Wisconsin shot 0-for-6 to end the game as IU capitalized on a 2:06 Badgers scoring drought. On the other hand, Indiana made seven of its last eight from the field.

The Hoosiers’ defense took a hit in February as they were giving up 80.2 points a game leading into Tuesday night. But when it mattered, Indiana’s defense delivered.

Woodson opted to substitute offense for defense with fouls to give and two minutes remaining, taking Mackenzie Mgbako out of the game for fifth-year senior Anthony Walker. The Miami (FL) transfer held his own, bringing size to the matchup against Wisconsin wing AJ Storr, who had 12 points in the second half.

On one possession in a tied game with 1:33 to go, Storr had an initial lane to the basket but was quickly cut off by Malik Reneau as Walker switched with him. Storr passed out to the left wing with nowhere to go and Wisconsin’s Chucky Hepburn and Tyler Wahl started a two-man action. Wahl eventually found himself open on the left block, but with the shot clock at one second, Indiana’s Kel’el Ware rotated and affected the shot as Wahl let go. It was the best look Wisconsin got for the remaining 1:10.

Ware was outstanding Tuesday, finishing the game with 27 points on 11-for-12 shooting with 11 rebounds and a season-high five blocked shots.

“Even at the beginning of the season, we were put in so many situations where we had to fight for the win, and tonight we came out fought for that win,” Ware said.

The sophomore seven-footer scored 20 first-half points but only two points in the first 13 minutes of the second half. This didn’t prevent him from pulling his weight on the defensive end.

“What got me back in it was just wanting to win,” Ware explained. “I guess you could say that. I realize that even though I wasn’t scoring on offense, I still had to do stuff offer defense to make sure we got the win.”

Woodson’s staple has been defense since he became head coach in March 2021. He’s emphasized it to the point where it’s fair to be critical when Indiana underperforms on that end of the court.

In his first season, Indiana’s defensive efficiency of 100.8 was the best in the Big Ten, according to Kenpom. Then, last year, it took a step down with a 104.1 defensive efficiency, which was ninth in the conference. This season, Indiana has taken another step back with a defensive efficiency of 109.8.

The first time Wisconsin and Indiana met on Jan. 19 — a game in which Ware was out with an ankle injury — Indiana surrendered 91 points to the Badgers. In Madison, Wisconsin shot 59.6 percent from the field and 47.7 percent from three while getting to the charity stripe for 29 foul attempts. That’s not winning basketball and it’s safe to say that Ware’s rim protection and late-game execution made a difference on Tuesday.

“We came down and got a big stop defensively,” Woodson said. “I mean, it’s not like I haven’t seen that out of our team. We just haven’t done it consistently. Tonight was Indiana basketball at its best, I think.”

Defensively hard-nosed Indiana is the best version of Indiana. The Hoosiers are 10-2 when holding opponents 70 points or under this season. And with three games, plus the Big Ten tournament, remaining on the schedule, not all is lost — yet.

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