BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — Tom Crean’s first 20-win season at Indiana came with some fitting benchmarks.
A freshman credited with turning the program around led the way again. An injured senior who survived a six-win season closed it out. And, of course, the Hoosiers had to scrap for another 40 minutes to pull off the win.
Cody Zeller, the freshman, finished with 23 points and Verdell Jones scored all six of his points in the final 4:03, leading No. 18 Indiana past Northwestern 71-66 for a milestone victory that had Crean’s fingerprints all over it.
“Tonight was about us somehow finding a way to get our 20th win,” Crean said. “We really wanted to do that at home because of all we’ve been through and all our fans have been through. It’s not something that you look at and say that automatically gives you anything. I’m really glad with the way we earned it tonight with some really good defensive stops.”
The Hoosiers (20-6, 8-6 Big Ten) understand just how remarkable this turnaround has been.
After posting three straight losing seasons for only the third time in school history, fans just wanted to celebrate a winning season.
Instead, the Hoosiers have given them so much more.
They upset No. 1 Kentucky and then No. 2 Ohio State in December, becoming the first Big Ten team in nearly six decades to beat the nation’s top two teams in the same season. They’ve gone 15-1 at home, and now, for the first time in Crean’s four seasons here, the Hoosiers have a 20-win season, too.
The primary reasons for the sudden success are the emergence of Zeller and the toughness of the seniors – a combination that was on full display Wednesday.
Jones had missed the previous 2 1/2 games with a bruised right shoulder and didn’t look like himself in the first half. But with the teams trading baskets and playing to a stalemate, Jones dug down late and proved the difference.
He broke a 63-63 tie with a 15-foot baseline jumper, extended the lead to 67-63 with a layup and then sealed the victory with a long jumper from the left wing that was originally ruled a 3 but overturned on a replay review.
It doesn’t get better than that
“I thought the way that he (Jones) played in the second half, it’s what you want every player to understand that if you’re really locked in defensively, it’s going to carry over into your offense,” Crean said. “He was really in a good groove inside of the game.”
Jones wasn’t the only Indiana player in sync against Northwestern (15-10, 5-8).
Zeller again provided the inside presence, missing only two of 11 shots. He finished with seven rebounds, three assists, one steal and, at times, carried the Hoosiers’ offense.
Christian Watford and Victor Oladipo each had 12 points and the Hoosiers overcame a season-low 15.4 percent shooting effort from 3-point range by limiting the Wildcats to 6 of 20 from beyond the arc.
John Shurna led the Wildcats with 29 points and Drew Crawford added 18, but they didn’t get enough help from their teammates. Northwestern was outscored 22-1 off the bench, and just couldn’t keep up with Jones’ late surge.
“They made big plays when they had to make big plays,” Wildcats coach Bill Carmody said. “We took the lead and things were going pretty nicely and then they made a couple of really good stops and certain guys on their team – Jones made a nice little baseline jumper off the bounce and then they hit that big 3.”
As usual, though, Carmody’s team made it tough.
After winning six of the last seven against Indiana, Northwestern came to Bloomington trying to get the kind of win that would impress the NCAA’s tournament selection committee.
They almost did.
Northwestern erased a 28-21 deficit with an 8-2 run late in the first half, but after closing to 30-29, the Hoosiers extended the lead to 37-31 at the half.
It didn’t last long.
The Wildcats opened the second half on a 12-2 run to take a 43-39 lead on Shurna’s tip-in with 16:51 to go.
Zeller and Will Sheehey then rallied the Hoosiers, scoring all of the points in a 10-2 run that gave Indiana a 49-45 advantage.
The back-and-forth went on the rest of the night, until Jones changed the game with his midrange jumper and the ensuing layup to make it 67-63 with 2:49 to go and then sealed it with the long range shot with 29.4 seconds left.
“It felt good, you know,” Jones said. “The first half I was a little fatigued, but I was able to get in a little groove at the end of the game and it gave me some confidence moving forward.”
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