Merely looking at boxscores can be very misleading. What ended up being a 78-64 win for the Indiana Hoosiers over the UT-Arlington Mavericks looks like a somewhat comfortable win on the surface, but anyone who watched the contest can attest to the fact that there was nothing comfortable about this game.
That can be interpreted in a literal sense too as before the game started, news came out that De’Ron Davis would be unable to play, bringing the total of injured scholarship players to five and leaving IU Coach Archie Miller with just a seven-man rotation.
Which quickly became a six-man rotation when Al Durham fell awkwardly on his back after scoring the first basket of the game. He would stay in for a little while longer but when he was subbed out with 7:58 left in the first half, he never returned to the game.
Still the six-man rotation of Romeo Langford, Rob Phinisee, Juwan Morgan, Justin Smith, Evan Fitzner, and Damezi Anderson pressed on and pushed a 24-14 lead from when Durham went out to a 39-22 halftime score.
Yet the Mavericks didn’t panic. Despite shooting a horrendous 1-of-12 from behind the arc in the first half, they kept to their gameplan and were rewarded as the shots from deep finally started to fall. Combine that with a suffocating defense against a fatigued Hoosier squad (remember IU was just over 48 hours removed from a grueling loss at Arkansas) and in the span of 12 minutes, Indiana’s lead went from 48-28 to just 61-60 with 6:33 left.
During those dozen minutes, the Mavericks played with swagger. Confidently launching threes when the stats said otherwise. Forcing the Hoosiers to commit turnover after turnover. They believed they were going to come back and win.
Then Hoosier Nation stepped into action.
Despite the student section being absent due to Thanksgiving Break, the seats at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall were still occupied with thousands of IU fans who cheered on the Hoosiers throughout the game. Yet with Indiana’s lead dwindling, the crowd became louder and louder as they tried to encourage their Cream and Crimson warriors.
“Without question, the energy our crowd gives our players, they feed off of (it),” said Coach Miller. “(The crowd) knew in that last seven, eight minutes we needed them. I thought they stepped up.”
As soon as UT-Arlington cut the deficit to just a single point, Indiana immediately countered on the next possession when Smith converted a layup off of a lobbed pass from Fitzner to end a 6-0 Maverick run.
That basket sparked a loud reaction from the crowd and suddenly that confidence in the Mavericks started to waver, so much so that UT-Arlington Head Coach Chris Ogden smartly called a timeout to ice the crowd and draw out a play for his team.
However, it didn’t work. Hoosier Nation retaliated by being even louder after the timeout and it was at that point that all that confidence waned.
Sensing the chink in the armor, Morgan asserted himself, scoring once and assisting on the other two IU baskets as the Hoosiers pushed the lead back to seven.
“When things aren’t going real well, you need your aces to kind of stick their head out and say let’s go, and I thought he did,” said Miller.
Even an incidental headbutt that caused Langford to leave the game with a bloody nose couldn’t stop the Hoosiers from gutting it out as Anderson hit a huge three just a minute later that basically iced the game as the lead returned to double-digits.
Morgan demonstrated his senior leadership not just at the end but throughout the game, finishing with 23 points, 10 rebounds, and four assists. Langford added 16 points and eight rebounds, while Phinisee had eight points, four assists, and three steals.
The final result was a well-earned victory in the face of adversity. Yet that adversity won’t be going away with the addition of three more scholarship players on the injury report and no guarantee any of them will even be available to play Friday vs UC Davis. Yet Morgan and his team remain undaunted.
“If it gets to the point where we have to play five people 40 minutes a game then that’s what we’ll do,” said Morgan. “Our bodies are in condition well enough to do it, but if it comes to it then that’s what we’re going to do, and we’ll fight as hard as we can.”