The first thing a number one seed in the NIT must get over is the fact it barely missed the NCAA Tournament. For some teams, they get over it immediately and get to work on trying to win the NIT. Some teams simply can’t get over it and get eliminated by a hungrier, low-seeded team on day one.
In between those two extremes reside the Indiana Hoosiers, who played relatively flat in the first half but played extremely motivated in the second half to beat the Saint Francis (PA) Red Flash 89-72 in the first round of the NIT on Tuesday night.
The Hoosiers led by as many as nine points during the first half, but the Red Flash outscored IU 27-12 during the final ten minutes of the first half to take a 40-34 lead into halftime. The cause for the huge run was a combination of lackadaisical defense and terrible shot selection which saw the Hoosiers attempt 13 first half threes, not something you want to see from a team hitting only 31.4% of its attempts from behind the arc.
The first half seemed to have ended in a total trainwreck as a missed call against Rob Phinisee combined with the same call being called on De’Ron Davis led to the referees giving Indiana Head Coach Archie Miller a technical foul that turned a two-point halftime deficit into a six-point halftime deficit.
Instead of being the nail in the coffin for Indiana’s season, it became the jolt of energy the team needed as it mimicked its coach’s fiery intensity by going on a 16-2 to start the second half as Saint Francis never got closer than five points the rest of the game.
Juwan Morgan scored 28 points, including a perfect 7-of-7 in the second half, and Al Durham poured in a career-high 22 points for a Hoosier team that needed scorers to show up as Romeo Langford sat out due to a back injury he sustained in the Big Ten Tournament against Ohio State.
In Langford’s place, Devonte Green started his seventh game of the season and while he did have an off night shooting the ball (4-of-13), he was still a huge contributor hitting three three-pointers and adding a game-high six assists.
“We did a better job in the second half, and Juwan (Morgan) clearly established himself, and that’s what we needed to do pretty much the entire game,” said Miller about the major difference between the first and second half. He also praised his starting guards for all having great games, noting the scoring of Durham and the passing of Rob Phinisee and Green.
Saint Francis was invited to the NIT after winning the Northeast Conference (NEC) regular season championship and the Red Flash played like a champion-level team in the first half, especially Senior Guard Jamaal King, who scored 16 of his 19 points before halftime. Isaiah Blackmon led the team with 21 points, including five three-pointers, Keith Braxton added nine points and nine rebounds.
With Indiana’s focus now set on the goal of winning the NIT, the Hoosiers next challenger will be a familiar one as they will face-off with the same Arkansas team that narrowly beat them 73-72 in Fayettevile early on in the season. The Razorbacks advanced to the second round of the NIT by defeating Providence 84-72 on the road and will need to do the same to advance again as they travel to Bloomington for this rematch. Whether or nor the Hoosiers have Langford for this game is yet to be seen, but the Hoosiers are more than capable of handling Arkansas if they play like they did in the second half on Thursday night.