BLOOMINGTON — In their latest Big Ten tug of war, the Indiana Hoosiers tugged harder than Michigan State.
This is becoming a trend that seemed to be a reach just a couple of weeks ago. But pulling away from the Spartans 82-69 on Sunday afternoon at Assembly Hall was the third straight win for a team that was in woe-is-me-mode with three straight league losses.
The latest overwhelming of a serious league foe follows a 63-45 smothering of Wisconsin and an 80-65 walloping of Illinois.
From the first moment, the jammed-in crowd was roaring for the little things, expressing LOUD sentiments, as if those were the call letters of a radio station.
Now, the Hoosiers are 13-6 and 4-4 in the league after teetering from the long-term injuries to guard Xavier Johnson and forward Race Thompson. Thompson, who suffered a leg injury Jan. 5 and hadn’t played since, made his first cameos totaling a few minutes. The fans gave him a standing ovation for breathing.
Senior Trayce Jackson-Davis, who has been playing at the most supreme level of his career, scored 31 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and passed for four assists. These adoring fans would give him a standing O for biting his fingernails.
Tall at 6-foot-9 with the footwork of a dancer and the arm reach of a heavyweight boxer with matching confidence, Jackson-Davis just dares any team to try and cover him one-on-one in the low post, Illinois’ main mistake. Michigan State played a great deal of help defense with a second player dropping in on Jackson-Davis.
“I feel there’s not a person in the country who can guard me,” Jackson-Davis said Sunday of any kind of solo coverage.
That is bolder than his usual self-effacing commentary, but with the key injuries, which certainly contributed to the prior three-game losing streak, Jackson-Davis has uplifted his game and his team at a critical juncture.
“It’s pretty special,” said guard Trey Galloway of observing Jackson-Davis up close.
Galloway, a senior, and Tamar Bates, a sophomore, each added 17 points and were long-range complements to Jackson-Davis’ inside game.
With two-fifths of the starting lineup residing on the bench for most of the month, this is what coach Mike Woodson sought as a way to bail out what he described as “a tailspin.” Others feared it may have symbolized immolating.
“When you lose two starters, it’s just a shell-shock to everybody,” Woodson said of the rest of the roster. “Mentally, we were smacked in the face.”
That may be a mixed metaphor, but it was true. It was time for others to take their turn.
“Practice became even harder,” Woodson said. “I demanded more. They’re not quitters. These guys are playing for something.”
That would be the Big Ten title and a place in the NCAA tournament.
Despite the vocal local support, the Hoosiers did start slowly against 13-7 Michigan State, shooting poorly for a stretch and falling behind 17-8 and 25-16. The Spartans were heavily aided by 6-9 Joey Hauser’s 22 points. Hauser is a major transfer arrival from Marquette. But he did not get the type of assistance from others Jackson-Davis did.
IU led 39-32 at the half and fended off several challenges before taking a better grip on the proceedings in the second half of the second half.
This response may have been heralded by Bates’ baby daughter, Leilani, who competed in the half-time baby crawl show and won the championship to the full-throated accompaniment of the IU-centric crowd.
Bates, who nailed five 3-pointers, seemed nearly as happy about her victory as the Hoosiers’.
“A comeback win,” Bates said of how the little girl overcame an early deficit. “Her first competition ever. She’s undefeated.”
It was an Indiana comeback win of less drama, albeit from early on, for IU, too, but while it’s too late to make a run at being undefeated, this stretch of major triumphs shows the Hoosiers are still very much alive in the race for the Big Ten regular-season crown.
Lew Freedman writes sports columns for The Tribune. Send comments to [email protected]