BLOOMINGTON — It was a survival game for the Indiana men’s basketball team.
Everyone in Assembly Hall went “Whew!” when the Hoosiers bested Maryland 74-64 on Thursday night, spiking a five-game losing streak that would have stretched to seriously embarrassing proportions with another L.
An additional loss would have damaged the psyche of a team that considers itself better than this but hasn’t proved it lately, repeatedly coming close but not finishing things off.
On a night when Trey Galloway, Khristian Lander and Rob Phinisee sat out with injuries, point guard Xavier Johnson, called “X” by teammates, was the X factor. Johnson shot 7-of-7 from the field, (including three 3s) for 24 points.
This was the best IU game for the Pitt transfer, coming after some shaky showings during the losing skein. Johnson was sharp all-around, collecting six assists and pitching the ball low to Race Thompson, who was slick around the hoop with 19 points while Trayce Jackson-Davis (10 points) sat with two fouls.
“When they’re going, we’re going to give them the ball,” Johnson said. “And coach, he preaches that.”
Coach Mike Woodson was preaching anything to give the Hoosiers a win as the end of the regular season approaches and the Big Ten tournament looms. Being 17-10 feels much better after a five-game drought.
“Definitely a little bit of weight off our shoulders,” Thompson said of gathering a victory. “We’ve got to play with a chip, though. We’ve got to keep building.”
IU has been an excellent defensive team but has often been a lousy shooting team, especially in the clutch. Maryland, for the time being run by interim coach Danny Manning, is 13-15 and looked very shaky at times.
Before the closing minutes, which have been a minefield for IU lately, the Hoosiers four times built 10-point leads only to see them dwindle, mostly due to Maryland’s Fatts Russell (23 points) hitting 3-pointers.
The Terrapins were at least as desperate for a victory as Indiana, just not as capable.
Part of the post-game discussion, mixed in with the pleasure of capturing a win for the first time since Feb. 5, revolved around the peculiar nature of players paying attention to social media comments. Naturally, they can be negative when things go wrong.
If it was up to Woodson, there would probably be a communal lockdown of team phones.
“X means well and he wants to be great,” Woodson said of Johnson putting pressure on himself and then having it added to by others. “Stay off social media. I don’t have time for that.”
If Hoosier Nation fans had been growing restless because of the series of close losses, they haven’t taken it out on first-year coach Woodson, one of their own past stars come home to coach. When he is introduced at home games, there are only cheers in the air.
For sure, the record could have been gaudier if the team had been able to carry its top-level play for all 40 minutes rather than surrendering late leads to teams like Northwestern, Ohio State and Wisconsin.
But Woodson said he never sensed any corrosion of spirit or saw lack of effort in the games that got away.
“Our attitude has been great, even during the five-game skid. We’ve been competing,” he said.
True, but falling just a little bit short every game raised the cliché issue, as Woodson put it, “When are you going to stop the bleeding?”
Outplaying Maryland over the final minutes — it was only 53-50 — was a needed boost.
“This is a big win for our team,” Woodson said. “When you lose five games in a row, you’re searching.”
Many times, the Hoosiers have relied on Jackson-Davis to carry them, but this was a win where he did not play a critical, points-on-the-board role. Maryland double-teamed him constantly, which gave Thompson extra room to operate, and that second foul on Jackson-Davis was a specious call.
With three regular-season games left, it’s not certain if the Hoosiers are cured or if this was merely a band-aid on the bleeding, but there is still time and opportunity to build the résumé and dream of NCAA tournament consideration.