By Michael Harley | @mhar3481
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana Hoosiers advanced to the semifinals of the Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament as they defeated the No. 1-seeded Fighting Illini of Illinois, 65-63, in the first quarterfinal game at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.
The ninth-seeded Hoosiers (20-12), became the second-lowest seeded team to reach a Big Ten semifinal since 1999. They will meet No. 5 Iowa at 1 p.m. on Saturday with a chance to reach the conference championship game for just the second time in the 24-year history of the tournament. Tenth-seeded Illinois reached the 2008 final.
Illinois (22-9) made one of its last seven shots and did not have a field goal for the last 5:04.
Indiana was led by sophomore forward Trayce Jackson-Davis, who scored nine of the team’s last 11 points in the last 4:41. Just as he did a day earlier in Indiana’s second-round victory over Michigan, Jackson-Davis was able to overcome a slow start. He scored 15 of his team-high 21 points after halftime.
Jackson-Davis has averaged 17.0 second-half points in Indiana’s two victories here. His last three baskets kept the Hoosiers within a point with 4:41 to go and put them ahead with 4:12 and 3:24 to play. His two free throws with 26.1 seconds to play gave Indiana the lead for the final time.
Junior forward Race Thompson overcame early foul trouble early, finishing the contest with 10 points and nine rebounds.
The Hoosiers advanced to the semifinal round for the first time since 2013 and sixth time in program history. Indiana coach Mike Woodson talked about how his team was able to secure the win over the No. 1 team in the tournament. “Well, again, today was another great effort by our ball club,” he said. “For 40 minutes, I mean, we competed. And Illinois and their coach, great staff, they competed. Nobody really wanted to give, but I thought we made some damn good plays down the stretch to secure the win.”
Illinois was upset in its first appearance of this year’s tournament after winning the championship last year at Lucas Oil Stadium. While understandably not being happy with the outcome, Illinois head coach Brad Underwood spoke of the silver lining with being knocked out the conference tournament early. “We were an exhausted basketball team last year. And more mentally than anything, and I think it’s great to push the ‘refresh’ button. We came here to win it, we didn’t, but it’s not the end of the world.” The Hoosiers appeared to need the win to feel more secure about their NCAA Tournament chances.
Woodson credited the team’s defensive performance as the catalyst for their win over the Illini. “Listen, I played for a great coach in Bob Knight, and the one thing he taught me was defense wins games,” Woodson said. “The offense is not going to be there every night, but if you can put a good defensive system in place, you put yourself in a great position to win every game, you’re going to be in every ballgame, and that’s how we’ve been all season.”
The defensive performance was spearheaded by junior guard Xavier Johnson, who has emerged as a strong leader over the last month. Illinois guards Andre Curbelo and Alfonso Plummer were held to combined 3-for-19 shooting, just 16%. The plan for Indiana was to leave Jackson-Davis matched up defensively with Illinois’ All-American junior center Kofi Cockburn, while allowing the guards to stick to their men on the perimeter. Cockburn scored 23 points with 10 rebounds, the 11th game this season in which he has scored 20 or more points with 10 or more rebounds.
“So basically, we were just trying to let me play one-on-one with him (Cockburn) and then have our guards be taking away, and that’s what we did,” Jackson-Davis said. “So our guards did a great job stepping up and not letting him pitch 3s.”
Indiana may have done enough already in the Big Ten Tournament to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament, but the Hoosiers were clearly not satisfied.
“It’s big for us, honestly,” Jackson-Davis said. “But what X (Xavier Johnson) told you guys yesterday, we didn’t pack for two days, we didn’t pack for three days, we packed to win the Big Ten, and that’s what Coach Woodson’s put a big emphasis on this year.”