INDIANAPOLIS — For most of the 40 minutes, Indiana’s Big Ten tournament quarterfinal game against Illinois resembled an arm wrestling combat, with two guys stalemated grunting, but gaining no advantage.
Until the Hoosiers slammed the Illini to the table with a thump at the end, bruising their hearts and minds with an unexpected defeat.
IU out-lasted No. 1 seed and nationally 16th-ranked Illinois, 65-63, Friday afternoon at Gainbridge Fieldhouse to move into the semifinals of the league championships for the first time in 19 years and likely solidify their chances of being selected for the NCAA tournament.
“Nobody really wanted to give,” said IU coach Mike Woodson. “Are you sure we’re in the tournament (NCAAs)?”
Nothing is sure until Sunday night’s official selection announcement is made, but being 20-12, as opposed to being viewed as a team coming off seven losses in its last nine regular-season games, enhances IU’s standing.
One day after Indiana spiked its season-long bad habit of faltering near the end of close games by taking out Michigan, the Hoosiers did it again against favored, 22-9 Illinois.
They did so by capturing precisely the type of tense, close-out contest they routinely lost all season with Trayce Jackson-Davis swishing two game-winning free throws with 26.1 seconds to play and watching defending tournament champ Illinois self-destruct.
Two uncharacteristic miscues which Illini coach Brad Underwood called “just silly turnovers” ruined last-minute comeback hopes.
Unlike Thursday, when Indiana needed a second-half, 28-4 run, to erase a 17-point Michigan lead, the Hoosiers, who had the top defense in the league this season, never let the Illini build much of a margin.
It was mostly a one-, or two-point differential over the first 20 minutes with the Hoosiers playing as if they had amnesia about a 74-57 loss to Illinois in Bloomington, Feb. 5.
That was probably Jackson-Davis’ worst game of the season, riding the bench because of foul trouble and scoring just 6 points. Illinois center Kofi Cockburn, who stands 7-1 and weighs 285 pounds, was unstoppable then.
When he got chances Friday, Cockburn (23 points, 10 rebounds) terrorized the low post, but IU’s defense regularly sealed off guard passes to set him up.
“Kofi’s going to get his,” Jackson-Davis said. “He’s a great player. He’s an All-American.”
Jackson-Davis admitted his previous Illinois performance got in his head and prompted a late-season slump and he thought about that before this game. Jackson-Davis is 6-9 and 40 pounds lighter than Cockburn, but quicker. He repeatedly finished shifty moves around the hoop for his 21 points. Woodson urged Jackson-Davis to use his strengths.
“It’s really big for me and our program,” Jackson-Davis said. Beating Illinois “was getting another thing off my chest.”
Indiana started to make its move on Illinois with 15 1/2 minutes left. It was 42-38 Fighting Illini when Race Thompson (10 points, 9 rebounds) hit a 3-point jumper and two minutes later gave IU the lead for the first time since 8:34 of the first half with two foul shots.
His shooting (helped by guard Xavier Johnson, on his way to 13 points) sparked IU to a 52-46 lead before Illinois re-took the lead at 57-54. By then, the Hoosiers had received critical contributions from subs.
Trey Galloway (8 points) struggling with a groin injury for weeks and Rob Phinisee (6) were difference-makers, especially with forward Jordan Geronimo limping off with a knee injury and in need of an MRI.
“Our bench was great,” Woodson said.
All season — until the Michigan opener — IU repeatedly made costly late-game errors. This time, with the Hoosiers’ pressuring defense a factor, Illinois spent the game shooting poorly and with veteran guard Trent Frazier making ill-timed turnovers.
“You can’t miss easy layups and you can’t miss free throws,” Frazier said. “I’m very disappointed in myself. We can’t make up excuses. We missed a lot of easy bunnies.”
Illinois forward Coleman Hawkins pumped in a career high 18 points, including four 3-pointers, but said the team’s attitude coming to Indianapolis was “expecting to win it all.”
Whether he was being philosophical or meant it, Underwood said sitting at home resting before the NCAA tournament may be the best thing for his team.
Illinois does not have to worry about an invitation. IU came to town fighting for its post-season life. It was Jackson-Davis who imbued the team with that life over the game’s last five minutes.
First, he finished off a drive. Then he hit a jump shot from the lane to give IU a 58-57 lead. Indiana fans know how rare it is for Jackson-Davis to shoot from outside, and Woodson’s reaction to the make was, “Hallelujah. He made the one that really counted.”
Jackson-Davis scored IU’s last 11 points, including those game-turning free throws in the final minute.
“I’ve been working on my free-throw routine,” Jackson-Davis said
By shooting 100 daily in practice.
For a change, and a second game in a row, Indiana made the biggest shots in the clutch and closed out a tough opponent.
“We held leads,” Woodson said of the missed opportunities during the season. “We just couldn’t close. You lose enough of them you start to get the breaks your way.”
The Hoosiers move on to play 24-9 Iowa, another team it fell to, 83-74, Jan. 13. The game, Saturday, at 1 p.m., will be the first time since 2003 IU has reached the conference semifinals. Which will still not be good enough for Jackson-Davis.
“It’s big for us,” Jackson-Davis said. “We didn’t pack for two days. We didn’t pack for three days. We packed to win the tournament.”
Indiana was just starting March Madness a little early.