Bloomington, Ind. – Perhaps the Hoosiers' obituary was written a bit prematurely.
Robert Vaden ended a three-week shooting drought with 21 points and a game-high 10 rebounds, while Errek Suhr provided a handful of key plays down the stretch as Indiana handed No. 18 Michigan State a 78-71 defeat Sunday at Assembly Hall on Senior Day.
The victory was the second straight for Indiana (15-10/7-7) and breathed life into its once dormant NCAA Tournament hopes. The Hoosiers moved into a sixth-place tie with Michigan State (19-9/7-7) in the Big Ten, with a chance to earn a first-round bye in the Big Ten Tournament depending on the outcome of next week's road trips to Purdue and Michigan.
"I thought we played the way we did early in the season," IU Coach Mike Davis said. "Our guys…it's taken them a week to get by everything. Now they are ready to play basketball."
Sunday's win not only gave IU a much-needed win in its quest to earn an NCAA invitation, but it also sent seniors Marshall Strickland, Marco Killingsworth, Lewis Monroe and Sean Kline out with a win in their final regular season game at Assembly Hall. Davis, meanwhile, likely coached his final game in Assembly Hall as well after his announcement 10 days ago that he'll step down at season's end.
Vaden said the team's focus wasn't so much on Davis as it was on getting a win over a top-25 team and sending the senior class out in style.
"It was the seniors' last game, and Coach Davis told us to not worry about him a while ago," Vaden said. "We just worried about our teammates and our seniors and try to send them out of here with a bang."
After the disappointments of recent weeks, Indiana bounced back with an effort that was reminiscent of their play in December and January when it was a fixture in the nation's top 25 and a Big Ten championship contender. After pulling down only 17 total rebounds in the two teams' first meeting, Indiana had 17 in the first half alone on Sunday and lost the rebounding battle by only two, 31-29. Indiana also came up with big baskets on offense and turnovers on defense at the game's most critical times, helping Indiana to its seventh Big Ten home win this season.
"It felt like we were back as a team to where we were in the beginning of the year," Vaden said. "We made the extra pass, we played team defense, we got some big stops and we hit some big shots."
Indiana jumped on the Spartans early. The Hoosiers scored on their first five possessions to open a 11-5 lead two minutes in. After Michigan State answered and cut the margin to one, 21-20, Indiana responded with a 10-0 run of its own. Strickland scored eight of his 16 points during the run as IU opened its double-digit lead, 31-20, with 6:48 remaining.
The Hoosiers went into halftime up 43-31, and then pushed the lead to 16 with 18:44 remaining in the second half. But Michigan State's Maurice Ager spearheaded the Spartans' rally. Ager, who scored 17 of his game-high 30 in the second half, scored nine points during a 11-2 Michigan State run that turned a 55-46 IU lead into a 57-57 tie with 9:21 remaining.
"Maurice looked like he wanted the ball," Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo said. "Maurice Ager played like the All-American player that he is."
Despite squandering the big lead, Indiana didn't fold. Over the next five minutes the teams exchanged the lead four times and had two ties before Errek Suhr made the game-changing play.
With Michigan State leading 69-67 with 3:32 remaining, Suhr was run over by Michigan State's Paul Davis on a screen, sending the Spartan center to the bench with his fifth foul. Suhr, who finished with nine points off the bench, hit both ends of the ensuing one-and-one, starting an 8-0 IU run Michigan State was never able to recover from.
"That was a great play to stand in there and take the charge," Davis said. "Errek and Marshall are two guys, when they set a screen they'll set it and won't hide from it.
"That was the turning point of the game was fouling him out. He's a phenomenal basketball player."
Davis finished with 14 points and six rebounds before fouling out, making him one of three Spartans in double figures. Shannon Brown added 18, as MSU's high scoring trio of Brown, Davis and Ager combined for 62 of Michigan State's 71 points.
Strickland, meanwhile, immediately took advantage of Davis' absence inside less than a minute later. With the game tied 69-69, Strickland drove into the paint and converted a layup under the outstretched arm of Delco Rowley, who fouled Strickland on the make. The ensuing free throw gave IU a 72-69 lead.
After Spartan point guard Drew Neitzel hoisted a contested running layup over the backboard on the other end, Vaden hit his fifth and final 3-pointer of the day to put Indiana up 75-69 with 1:54 remaining.
"I think when he threw that hook shot out of bounds, we didn't look back from there," Killingsworth said.
Any hopes of another Spartan rally were done in by a couple of Travis Walton turnovers. The Spartans' backup point guard had a pass intercepted by Suhr with 38 seconds remaining and the Hoosiers leading by four. Suhr raced to the other end and missed a fast break layup, but corralled his own offensive rebound. He was fouled by Shannon Brown and hit both free throws to extend the lead to six.
Then, with Indiana holding a six-point lead with 25 seconds left, Walton attempted to throw an alley-oop to Ager on an in-bounds pass that was intercepted by Rod Wilmont. Brown eventually fouled Strickland, who connected on one of two free throws to finish off Michigan State.
Playing in his final home game, Strickland finished with 16 points and four assists, while Killingsworth added 18 points as well.
The win certainly strengthens Indiana's case for inclusion in the NCAA Tournament. Izzo, for one, is hopeful that when the NCAA field is announced in two weeks, Indiana's name will be included.
"This is still a very good Indiana team," Izzo said. "It is a very good basketball team that was some key guys. If Strickland is playing well, Vaden is as good as anyone in this league. I still think they're a dangerous team in the Big Ten tourney, and I still hope they'll get into the NCAA Tournament."
For that to happen, though, Davis' team still has some work to do. Indiana closes its season on the road against Purdue on Wednesday and at Michigan on Saturday, and the Hoosiers have yet to win a Big Ten road game. To earn an at-large invitation, Indiana likely still needs to win at least one of those two games.
Indiana's players, though, aren't so much focused on trying to determine how many games they still need to add to the victory column to earn IU's first NCAA trip in three years. Instead, they hope to carry the momentum into Wednesday's matchup with Purdue.
"If we keep winning, everything will take care of itself," Killingsworth said.
Killingsworth 6-12 6-6 18, Vaden 8-13 0-0 21, Ratliff 1-3 0-0 2, Strickland 5-11 4-5 16, Calloway 2-3 1-2 5, Wilmont 2-6 0-0 4, Suhr 1-4 6-6 9, Allen 1-5 0-2 3, Kline 0-0 0-0 0.Totals 26-57 17-21 78.
MICHIGAN STATE 71
Gray 0-0 1-2 1, Davis 7-13 0-0 14, Brown 5-13 7-7 18, Neitzel 2-7 0-0 5, Ager 12-18 2-3 30, Ibok 0-0 0-0 0, Walton 1-3 1-1 3, Suton 0-1 0-0 0, Rowley 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 27-55 11-13 71.
Halftime Score: Indiana 43, Michigan State 31. 3-Pointers: Indiana 9-23 (Killingsworth 0-1, Vaden 5-8, Ratliff 0-1, Strickland 2-4, Wilmont 0-3, Suhr 1-3, Allen 1-3), Michigan State 6-13 (Brown 1-4, Neitzel 1-3, Ager 4-6). Rebounds: Indiana 29 (Vaden 10), Michigan State 31 (Davis, Brown, Ager 6). Assists: Indiana 13 (Vaden 5), Michigan State 7 (Neitzel, Walton 3). Turnovers: Indiana 10 (Killingsworth 4), Michigan State 14 (Brown 5). Blocks: Indiana 1 (Allen), Michigan State 4 (Davis, Brown, Neitzel, Ibok). Officials: Jim Burr, Steve Welmer, Donnee Gray. Attendance: 17,276.
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