Say hello to the drama kings of this college basketball season. When it comes to action thrills, the Indiana Hoosiers have been better than a Die Hard movie marathon.
They are 9-2, with four consecutive wins in the first half of December by eight combined points, all settled in the final minute. So they could be 5-6. Then again, they lost by one point in the last seconds at Arkansas in November, so they could be 10-1. See? This could go on all night. Except for the 90-69 thumping at Duke; not much gray area to that one.
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But this month, the plot thickens by the minute. Indiana zigs toward defeat, then zags to a victory. Get in peril, find a way to win, repeat. “However many games it’s been now in a row, seems like we’re in those huddles feeling the same way every game,” coach Archie Miller was saying in Indianapolis Saturday, after the last rabbit out of the hat against Butler. “They have a confidence about each other. Sometimes it’s a different guy, sometimes it’s the same guy.”
Strange thing about Indiana. At last check, the Hoosiers were tied for fourth in the nation in field goal percentage . . . but tied for 306th in free throw shooting, when nobody is guarding them. That’s often an excellent way to lose close games, or at least make them closer, which is why Indiana’s December has provided some of the early season’s best entertainment.
Welcome to Hoosiers Theater. Act 1.
For 39 minutes in Bloomington, Indiana and Northwestern were tied 15 times and exchanged the lead more than a dozen times. Nobody was ever in front by more than five points. Freshman megastar Romeo Langford’s floater with 39.7 seconds – part of his 20 points -- finally put the Hoosiers ahead to stay in a 68-66 victory. Indiana decisively outshot Northwestern in percentage, 55-44, but barely survived. This was four days after the Durham drubbing.
Romeo’s game winning bucket 🎥 pic.twitter.com/Ik4T9abOih— Indiana Basketball (@IndianaMBB) December 1, 2018
Miller: “A bounce-back is what you need to sort of continue and gain confidence and keep working. That’s what we’re going to do.”
Penn State led 9-0 almost before Miller’s seat was warm on the Indiana bench in State College. The Hoosiers came charging back, and were ahead 11 with under four minutes left, thanks to seven consecutive points by TOF Rob Phinisee. TOF? The Other Freshman. He, too, was a state of Indiana prep star, but Langford got most of the national buzz. Not lately, though.
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The Nittany Lions were doomed by an 11-for-26 disaster at the free throw line. Still, they had a chance in the final seconds, until Phinisee helped force a turnover to leave the score at 64-62. He had 12 points, five rebounds, five steals. Langford led with 17 points.
Miller: “For our team to be 2-0 (in the Big Ten), we’re very fortunate. You take them any which way you can get them.”
And on his freshmen guards Langford and Phinisee, after their first nine games in college: “I think we trust them as much as we trust anybody on the team.”
This game in Bloomington swayed back and forth – Louisville up most of the time, by as many as eight — until Phinisee’s 3-pointer with 1:25 left gave the Hoosiers the lead for good. The final was 68-67, with Langford scoring 21. It was the first time in more than 30 years that Indiana had won three consecutive games by one or two points.
Up up & away. pic.twitter.com/lo1zImk3SP— Indiana Basketball (@IndianaMBB) December 8, 2018
Miller on Phinisee: “We need him to hunt more shots. He’s very reluctant right now to shoot unless he’s wide open. He’s a good shooter . . . He’s also a tough kid. You don’t really know how tough a guy is, what they’re made of, until you get them going.”
Butler led for more than 34 minutes, by as many as 11 points. But it all came down to the final 20 seconds, score tied at 68, the Hoosiers looking for Langford or Juwan Morgan – who had 35 points – to make a play. Butler’s defense was determined not to let either happen, and the ball finally ended with Phinisee, wayyy out on the court. “We go as he goes,” Morgan would say later.
Phinisee launched from the next zip code. Swish, buzzer, 71-68 at Indianapolis’ Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Phinisee: “Obviously, it wasn’t drawn up like that . . . I put it up, prayed to God it went in.”
Butler coach LaVall Jordan: “I’ve been telling our staff, on film, Phinisee has been as impressive as any guard I’ve seen.”
In those four acts, by the way, Phinisee was on the floor nearly 118 minutes as point guard — and committed only seven turnovers.
“He’s very competitive," Miller said. "It’s a quiet competitiveness that he has about him that he believes he can get it done . . . For whatever reason, he’s not afraid to take or make a play when we need him, too. He’s just a solid, solid dude.”
Bring down the curtain, that’s the last act. Or is it just intermission?
“I think we’d like to get a couple wins where it’s not within the last 10 seconds where we won,” Morgan said. “At the same time, it’s the ones that you grind out that are the best feeling. Come March time, those are the ones you’re really going to need.”
Indiana hosts Central Arkansas and Jacksonville this week, so late theatrics might not be required. Then again, the Hoosiers trailed UC Davis by 14 before winning by 14. They know drama in Bloomington.