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Pete Diprimio | The News-Sentinel | January 8, 2017

Hoosiers can breathe after halting losing streak

  James Blackmon Jr. had 25 points to help Indiana snap a three-game losing streak.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Robert Johnson and Thomas Bryant are back.

So are the Hoosiers.

For this Indiana can give thanks.

Relief came with Saturday's 96-80 victory over Illinois that, perhaps, calmed a forever stirred fan base.

DI Men's Basketball: Indiana dominates Illinois

"We can't listen to the outside," Bryant said. "We have to keep improving."

And so the Hoosiers did.

Even better for Hoosier Nation, victory came in Assembly Hall, which had briefly lost its luster as one of the nation's most intimidating home courts.

At least for one game, the free-fall toward disaster has stopped. After three straight losses, including the first two of the Big Ten season, both at Assembly Hall, the No. 25 Hoosiers (11-5 overall, 1-2 in the conference) are back in the business of not just winning, but dominating.

Well, mostly dominating.

"This was really important," guard James Blackmon said. "Every team from now on will be great. We have to know one game, one loss, will never define us. We have to have a short memory and build on it."

Illinois (11-5, 1-2) was no Mississippi Valley State — the Illini had beaten Missouri, North Carolina State, Ohio State and VCU, among others — but for 32 minutes it played the patsy part.

A Hoosier team pushing all available accountability buttons saw to that.

If you believe in NCAA RPI sense of urgency, IU has a mountain to climb (it comes in at No. 134), but it has to start somewhere and Saturday was an emphatic way to do it.

Johnson provided much of that emphasis. After going just 5-for-19 from the field in his last two games, for a total of 21 points, he caught fire from the opening tip. He finished with 18 points on 7-for-11 shooting.

"He is really good offensively," Illinois coach John Groce said, "and he really competes defensively. I really respect the face he plays both sides of the ball."

Johnson also spent a lot of energy guarding Malcolm Hill, Illinois' leading scorer. Hill had just two points in the first half, when the game was basically won.

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"He has a plus-42 in three Big Ten games," coach Tom Crean said. "All I want is that defense. It's about everybody understanding that we have got to be really good defensively. It's a really good league.

"Our defense and awareness, that's what it comes down to. It sounds easy. It's not."

Then there was Bryant, whose recent lack of dominant performances had some wondering what was wrong.

Nothing, as it turned out. He scored a season-high 20 points on 6-for-6 shooting, including 2-for-2 from three-point range. He added six rebounds and two blocks in 27 minutes.

"It was just having the right mentality," Bryant said. "This conference has good teams. You've got to bring your hard hat each time and each game.

"I felt I had to play my game. I've been working with the coaches on my shooting, and also in the low post.

"We had a good week of practice. Everybody knows to do his job. I got the ball at the right time."

Right with them was Blackmon, who was back to raining 3-pointers. He was 5-for-9 beyond the arc for 25 points. It was his most since scoring 26 points against Butler last month. He'd only scored 32 total points in his previous three games.

He has 984 career points after passing Isiah Thomas and Matt Nover on IU's career scoring list.

"James didn't have a perfect game," Crean said, "but he played with really good intent. That makes your offense that much better. His defense got him going."

Blackmon, Bryant and Johnson were the catalysts in a three-point resurgence. IU was 13-for-25 against Illinois after going 9-for-36 in its previous two games.

Granted, Illinois' defense doesn't rate with Louisville and Wisconsin, but that misses the point, which was Assembly Hall was Cream 'n Crimson fun again.

"I'm not saying we played a great game," Crean said, "but we played a hard, aggressive 40 minutes.

"They never lost confidence. I never saw their heads drop. That's so important that they don't start having self doubt. That's a great step for us."

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This time there was no poor start, indifferent defense and wandering intensity.

There was honest to goodness on-court leadership, such as when Johnson told Bryant, who had just committed a second-half foul, that he had to move his feet and keep in front of a driving Illinois guard.

Indiana bolted to a 15-0 lead. After 15 minutes, eight Hoosiers had at least one assist. Even better, the Hoosiers had just four turnovers in the opening 20 minutes while piling up 13 assists, huge for the Big Ten's worst team in assist-to-turnover ratio.

IU defended Illinois' offense into mush. By halftime, the Illini had seven baskets and seven turnovers. They shot 29.2 percent and trailed 48-29.

The second half mixed Cream 'n Crimson domination with Illinois resurgence. The Illini closed within nine points, in part because IU got sloppy (eight of its 12 turnovers came in the final 18 minutes), in part because Illinois got hot.

"Nobody goes away in the Big Ten," Crean said. "Nobody says it's over. We knew they would keep coming."

This article is written by Pete DiPrimio from The News-Sentinel and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network.


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