Hoosiers rally sets up rematch with Kentucky
PORTLAND, Ore. – In the six days since the unveiling of the NCAA tournament bracket last Sunday, the one thing on the minds of Indiana fans everywhere was the one thing the Hoosiers themselves were forbidden from mentioning.
They couldn’t talk about Kentucky.
They couldn’t bring up handing the Wildcats their only regular-season loss, in December. They couldn’t discuss how several Kentucky players angered the Hoosier faithful by calling the Christian Watford buzzer-beater “a lucky shot.” And they couldn’t point out that upsetting Kentucky a second time finally would legitimize them in the mind of critics who have doubted them all season.
Those topics finally are fair game, thanks to fourth-seeded Indiana’s frantic comeback to beat 12th-seeded VCU 63-61 in a third-round game in the South Region on Saturday night. The Hoosiers erased a five-point deficit in the final two minutes and won on Will Sheehey’s go-ahead baseline jumper with 12.7 seconds left, setting up a Sweet 16 rematch with top-seeded Kentucky that surely will be preceded by five days of sugared-up hype.
“That’s the game everyone wants to see, right?” Indiana guard Jordan Hulls said. “We’re looking forward to it.”
It’s a testament to the rebuilding efforts of coach Tom Crean that Indiana’s first Sweet 16 bid in a decade arrived a year ahead of schedule.
In Crean’s first three seasons in charge of Indiana’s scandal-tainted program, the Hoosiers hardly resembled the school’s legendary teams of the past, playing in front of tepid home crowds, foundering on the road and losing 66 total games. The arrival of highly touted center Cody Zeller and the development of returners Sheehey, Hulls and Victor Oladipo raised expectations this season, but until Indiana upset Kentucky and Ohio State in December, few expected the Hoosiers to do more than perhaps contend for an NCAA bid.
“These guys have had to come from a long way,” Crean said. “Did we have days where we wondered if we would get to this point? I would look back and say there were a lot of disappointments, but nobody in our program that’s with us to this point ever got discouraged. And there’s a huge difference between disappointment and discouragement.”
[Sunday look: Eight more teams will advance to the Sweet 16]
That same resilience is what gives Indiana hope of toppling a Kentucky team loaded with future NBA draft lottery picks next week. It’s also what propelled IU past VCU in a game that several times seemed to be slipping away from the Hoosiers.
Well-aware that the key to winning was avoiding turnovers against the Rams’ swarming “havoc” defense, Crean had Indiana practice against a seven- or eight-man scout team in hopes of simulating VCU’s full-court pressure. Even that didn’t prepare the Hoosiers for the Rams’ speed, quick hands and array of traps, as they committed 22 turnovers and scored only 15 points in the first 18 minutes of the second half.
“There’s really no way to prepare for their pressure,” Zeller said. “They have big guys who can move well, they have great length and they’ve forced a lot of turnovers all year. We struggled with it.”
During a timeout with 5:09 to play and Indiana still trailing 59-53, Crean gathered his players together and reminded them they had been in this position before. He specifically referenced a Nov. 30 game at North Carolina State in which the Hoosiers trailed by seven in the final eight minutes but roared back to take an 11-point victory.
What helped Indiana make its finishing kick was perhaps a rare tactical miscue by Shaka Smart on one end and the reemergence of Zeller at the other.
VCU stopped being as aggressive in transition and slowed the pace of the game, an out-of-character move that contributed to the Rams scoring only four points in the game’s final 12:28.
Meanwhile, Zeller, who had scored only one second-half point after a 10-point first half, finally regained his aggressiveness in the final six minutes, three times getting to the rim or the foul line on drives from the high post.
“We’ve been there before in almost the same situation in numerous games this season,” said Sheehey, who went to The Sagemont School in Weston, Fla., with suspended Syracuse center Fab Melo. “Our motto for the whole time was just to come out and keep playing. Even though we got down in a little stretch, we knew we were going to make a run. And we did.”
The final punches in Indiana’s comeback fittingly were delivered by two roommates who long have discussed what it would be like to play together in the NCAA tournament. First, Oladipo drove around a Zeller screen, made a layup, drew Juvonte Reddic’s fifth foul and hit the free throw to tie the score at 61 with 47 seconds to go. Sheehey then sank a wide-open baseline jumper when the ball caromed out to him after Oladipo drove wildly to the rim in transition.
VCU’s Rob Brandenberg got a good look at the potential game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer. Only after that shot rimmed out could the Indiana players run wildly onto the court, celebrate in the locker room, then turn their attention to the team that previously could not be mentioned.
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