‘They’re my backbone’: Xavier Johnson leads Indiana to 83-78 win against Maryland in front of family

  • 03/03/2024 6:38 pm in

For Xavier Johnson, family is everything.

And Indiana’s trip to College Park, Maryland, was Johnson’s last chance to play in front of most of his family in a college uniform.

Johnson, who has missed nearly two full months of this season with elbow and ankle injuries, hails from Woodbridge, Virginia — about a 50-minute drive from the Xfinity Center, home of the Terrapins. The homecoming was emotional, but in the end, Johnson gave himself and his family one of his most complete performances of the season in IU’s 83-78 comeback win over Maryland.

“It’s my last time being in a college uniform in front of my family,” Johnson said Friday morning. “It’s been a long ride, a long journey …for me, my parents, my family.

“It slipped my mind. That it’s almost really over.”

The 2023-24 season has been tough for Johnson and IU. The sixth-year point guard returned for the first time in six games earlier in the week against Wisconsin. Against the Badgers, the 2021-22 season All-Big Ten honorable mention eased into action off the bench, playing 15 minutes and scoring five points.

“It’s been very, very, very, very emotional,” Johnson said. “I cried a couple of times at home because it’s my last year, and dealing with what I had to deal with for the past year, I don’t think nobody can deal with, honestly …basketball is really my first love and something that’s been taken away for the past year.

“What got me through it was my family …having my family around is my biggest support system.”

After playing 34 games his first season in the Cream and Crimson and catapulting Indiana into the NCAA tournament, Johnson has only played in 27 games combined in the past seasons. Against Maryland, ‘X’ was the ‘x-factor’ Mike Woodson raved about and advocated for. Johnson dropped 13 points on 5-for-7 shooting while dishing out six assists and committing just one turnover.

Johnson’s 16 family members in attendance cheered so loud that the television broadcast picked it up when he first checked into the game. The Pittsburgh transfer made winning plays on both ends of the floor and was a catalyst in IU’s 15-0 second half run. The Hoosiers trailed by as many as 16 in the second half.

Johnson didn’t start the first or second half but entered the game with 18:35 to play and Indiana down 15. He didn’t come out the rest of the way. Indiana outscored the Terps 50-30 from that mark to the final buzzer.

“He’s just so great at what he does,” freshman Mackenzie Mgbako said. “Being able to move the ball in transition and get downhill at an amazing pace and find players for the open shot.”

The 6-foot-3 guard’s speed is unquestionable. His ability to get in transition and apply ball pressure changes Indiana’s ceiling offensively. On Sunday, Indiana scored 20 fastbreak points. While his speed is one of his best assets on the basketball floor, it can also be problematic. Indiana fans know his tendency to spiral out of control. Against the Terps, the captain was steady and in command.

“I just thought ‘X’ was Xavier Johnson,” Woodson said postgame. “He did a lot of good things on the floor from a defensive standpoint, but just controlling the game along with him and (Trey Galloway), I missed that this season.

“I would like to think things would be a lot different if we had ‘X’ in those games that got away.”

Johnson also drew the defensive assignment of Maryland’s leading scorer and All-Big Ten guard Jahmir Young. Young is dynamic on the offensive end and also one of the best players in the nation in clutch moments, but Johnson’s pesky nature and ball pressure slowed him down as he shot 3-for-7 in the second half.

Indiana’s season is far from what many wanted it to be; the Hoosiers just won back-to-back games for the first time since December. Both Johnson and Woodson know that. But, in these struggling times, it’s been Johnson’s family that’s kept him grounded.

“They’re my backbone. It’s important for them to be there for me,” Johnson said postgame.

The little moments are fleeting for Johnson, who turned 24 in October. The number of plane rides, team meals and practices left is entering single digits, but he’s still got one goal: win and give Indiana a chance to make a run at an NCAA tournament bid in the Big Ten tournament.

(Photo credit: IU Athletics)

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