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COLUMN

IU fights way back to postseason possibilities

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Tipoff: Nebraska at Indiana, 7 p.m., Wednesday.
Radio: 1250-AM
TV: BTN

Online: For more on college sports, follow Pete DiPrimio via Twitter at www.twitter.com/pdiprimio

Surging Hoosiers out-tough Ohio State

Monday, March 3, 2014 - 1:32 pm

BLOOMINGTON – Tom Crean tapped into Joe Louis-Max Schmeling heavyweight boxing history.

Crean needed his Indiana Hoosiers to believe they could beat No. 22 Ohio State, that they could get payback from last year's home defeat against the Buckeyes that nearly cost them the Big Ten championship.

Oh, yes. That they could do it without double-double freshman standout Noah Vonleh, out with an inflamed left foot.

So before Sunday's 72-64 Hoosier victory Crean showed the players a tape of Louis' 1938 knockout of Schmeling to regain the heavyweight championship, which reversed Louis' stunning knockout loss to Schmeling two years earlier.

History, it seems, can be a great teacher about redemption and making the most of a second chance.

“This league is so tough that the only thing you can liken it to is a 15-round fight every night and we've been answering every round,” Crean said. “We've been waiting for this game for a long time.

"I know I have.”

In the last eight days, in as grueling a crucible as college basketball can produce, IU has gone 3-1. It won a grinder at Northwestern; it dominated at No. 14 Wisconsin for a half before fading; and then toughed out wins over No. 20 Iowa and then the Buckeyes.

A few weeks earlier, the Hoosiers were playing soft as no Big Ten team can afford to do. They coughed up second half leads with amazing ease (remember the Penn State home debacle?) , and fan anger was everywhere.

But then they grew up. They toughened. And now, with a 17-12 record, 7-9 in the Big Ten, they have a NCAA tourney chance.

Really. They do.

“I don't think there is any question the Penn State game shook us in a lot of ways,” Crean said. “At the end of the game, we weren't close to the way we practiced and prepared. We knew we let the pressure and emotion get to us. We've grown from that.

“You can never get away from making sure the most important improvement you do is the individual player so their confidence continues to grow. You can have the greatest scheme in the world, the greatest plan in the world, but if they don't feel good about what they're capable of doing, it's never going to be as good.”

On Sunday, it was very good, even though it didn't start that way. The Hoosiers fell into a 20-12 hole, in part because of another turnover frenzy (seven in 10 minutes). But then they regrouped behind their biggest constant in this most inconsistent of seasons:

Defense.

And then they added tenacity and even, although some will disbelieve, good coaching.

Losing Vonleh could have been a game changer. He was the Big Ten rebound (9.1) and double-double (10) leader. He was a double figure scorer who didn't shoot enough, but who still distorted defenses because of the attention he demanded.

Without him, the Hoosiers played smaller, spaced wider and shot better, impressive given Ohio State had, by far, the Big Ten's stingiest defense, allowing just 58.4 points.

IU burned the Buckeyes with 48.0 percent shooting, including 56.5 percent in the second half. Ohio State compounded that by missing layups, three-pointers (0-or-11) and free throws (14-for-23).

“We pride ourselves on defense,” coach Thad Matta said, “and we missed layups, missed free throws and then, all of a sudden, we clammed up and lost our defensive intensity. We lost our juice on the defensive end.”

IU replaced Vonleh with three players -- 6-9 Hanner Mosquera-Perea, 6-8 Jeremy Hollowell and 6-9 Jeff Howard. They combined for 12 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks, more than enough against stumbling Ohio State. Two straight road losses leaves it 22-8 overall, 9-8 in the Big Ten.

It was potentially, a break-through opportunity for Perea who needed something positive after a rough few weeks. He's still in penance mode for his two-game suspension following last month's OWI arrest, although what that is remains Crean's secret. Perea's eight points matched his career high last reached in early December against North Florida. His five rebounds – two off his career high – were his most since grabbing five against Nicholls State in early December.

Perea was asked about how he's handled the off-court adversity, but Sheehey answered for him. It was a senior leader providing interference for a young teammate who had done wrong.

“We're just going to say that Hanner's been working really hard over the past couple of weeks since that happened. He's sorry for his action and we're going to move on from it. He's a great kid. It's not going to happen again. He's learned from it and he's taking strides every day in practice.”

All the Hoosiers are taking strides. Perhaps they started too late. The NCAA tourney bubble remains an unforgiving place.

Still, history is full of comebacks. You just have to be willing to fight.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Pete DiPrimio at pdiprimio@news-sentinel.com.