INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Notre Dame tried to focus on stopping Indiana’s guards Saturday.
Cody Zeller, the Hoosiers’ highly-touted freshman, dominated in the middle, scoring 21 points, grabbing eight rebounds and leading No. 18 Indiana past the Fighting Irish 69-58 in the inaugural Crossroads Classic.
“It was more about stopping the guards and the bigs could rotate (against Zeller), to get in there and pester them a little bit,” Notre Dame forward Jack Cooley said of the defensive game plan. “We tried. It just didn’t work.”
Instead, the Hoosiers went inside first, and the Irish didn’t have an answer for the man who has changed everything in Bloomington this season.
Indiana is now 10-0 for the first time since 1989-90. The Hoosiers also protected their first Top 25 ranking in more than three years and are poised to make the 500th all-time appearance in this week’s Associated Press poll. Only six schools have been ranked more frequently.
The victory was Indiana’s first over Notre Dame since 2003, and the Hoosiers also avoided stumbling a week after upsetting No. 1 Kentucky.
It wasn’t pretty, but thanks to Zeller’s offense and a gritty defense, the Hoosiers held on.
“We’ve got to play through Cody all the time because he does so many different things,” Indiana guard Jordan Hulls said. “You can throw it in, he can score, he can pass, we’ve just got to cut off him, find open spots and he’s unselfish, so he’ll find the open man. It’s very, very crucial that we do that every game and it shows. He’ll do whatever he needs to do to win.”
Zeller certainly proved that Saturday, going 8 of 14 from the field and 5 of 6 from the free-throw line with two assists, two blocks and one steal against his older brother’s alma mater.
Eventually, Zeller’s teammates got in sync, too. Victor Oladipo finished with 16 points, going 6 of 7 from the field. Hulls wound up with 12 points and ran his streak of consecutive free throws made to 54. Christian Watford, who made the buzzer-beating 3-pointer to beat Kentucky, finished with 10 points after missing his first five shots Saturday.
The other part of the equation was Indiana’s shutdown defense. Notre Dame (7-5) shot just 38.1 percent from the field and didn’t produce a basket for just over 16 minutes. Eric Atkins led the Irish with 15 points and Jean Grant had 14.
“I thought we got off to a good start. I was hoping we could ride that a little bit more offensively,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “Certainly, Indiana defending us caused us problems offensively.”
On another day, the field-goal drought might have put Notre Dame in a deep hole.
But with the Hoosiers playing as if they had spent the past week focused on final exams instead of basketball, they struggled early.
Indiana fell behind when Alex Dragicevich opened the game with three 3-pointers in the first 5:13. When Grant and Cooley combined to make four straight free throws, Notre Dame led 15-6. But after Grant stole the ball from Hulls and drove in for a layup before the free throws, the Hoosiers were nearly perfect on defense.
Notre Dame missed its last four 3s of the half, scored its only 2-pointer on the Grant layup and didn’t allow a basket over the final 14:33 of the half.
“Very, very good win for us,” he said. “We hadn’t experienced getting a win like this this season and one, probably again, in the past that we probably wouldn’t have been able to get because it was a very, very physical game.”
Indiana didn’t stop there.
Cooley finally ended the drought 1:33 into the second half, posting up for a layup and drawing a foul before missing the free throw. It was that kind of day for the Irish.
The Hoosiers extended the lead to 37-25 on Hulls’ 3-pointer with 14:07 to go, and Notre Dame trimmed the lead to 39-33 just 2 minutes later.
Indiana responded again with its inside-outside combination and methodically pulled away at Conseco Fieldhouse, it’s home away from home.
“I try to take what they’re giving me, but you’ve just got to try and stay active and they did a nice job of getting me the ball,” Zeller said. “It was a good overall game for us.”
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