When Indiana departed for its final road trip of the season to Northwestern, Coach Kelvin Sampson's squad knew its magic number for an NCAA Tournament bid was three.
The Hoosiers desperately needed a win Wednesday to solidify its standing as an NCAA-worthy team, and they knew they'd have to do much of their damage from behind the 3-point arc against the Wildcat zone defense. While it wasn't easy, the Hoosiers ultimately delivered that much needed victory courtesy a school-record nine 3-pointers and 31 points from Rod Wilmont in a 69-65 victory at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
The win lifted Indiana to 19-9 overall, 9-6 in the Big Ten, and into a third-place tie with Illinois in the Big Ten.
Just four days removed from a zero-point, 0-of-6 shooting effort against Michigan State, Wilmont bounced back by eclipsing his career-high in points with an 11-of-17 shooting effort overall, including 9-of-13 from behind the 3-point arc. His nine 3-pointers eclipsed the previous school record of eight shared by Steve Alford, Jay Edwards, Brian Evans, Neil Reed and Robert Vaden.
"Rod didn't score a point at Michigan State, and we challenged him to play like a senior," Sampson said.
Wilmont did just that on Northwestern's Senior Night. In addition to his marksmanship from behind the 3-point arc, the Hoosier senior added a career-high 12 rebounds, helping Indiana win the battle of the boards 35-28.
Indiana needed everything Wilmont had to offer thanks to a spirited effort by a Northwestern team that battled back from seemingly significant deficits on numerous occasions to give itself a chance in the closing seconds.
After Wilmont banked in a 3-pointer in at the halftime buzzer to give IU a four-point lead at intermission, the Hoosiers slowly extended the cushion in the second half. A 7-2 run to start the half pushed IU's lead to nine, 39-30. Indiana maintained the lead and finally appeared to put the game away when D.J. White converted a conventional three-point play at the 2:42 mark to put IU up 11, 63-52.
But the Wildcats responded. Three IU turnovers in a 46-second span led to three Northwestern fastbreak baskets, and the Wildcats were within five, 63-58 with 1:40 left. D.J. White scored on a dunk to push the lead back to seven, but a Sterling Williams 3-pointer cut the lead back to four moments later.
Then, some suspect IU free-throw shooting gave Northwestern a chance in the final seconds. Joey Shaw and Errek Suhr both missed the front ends of one-and-ones in the final minute to keep the game close, and A.J. Ratliff then made one of two free throws at the :09.0 mark to give IU a 68-65 lead. But Northwestern's Craig Moore threw up an air ball on a potential game-tying 3-pointer at the other end, and Ratliff hit a free throw to put the game away.
"It was a great win," Sampson said. "AT this time of year, every win is a great win."
While Wilmont carried the Hoosiers, Indiana also got a big second half effort from D.J. White and a solid all-around game from Armon Bassett. Bassett added 10 points, five rebounds and nine assists while handling most of the point guard duties. While Earl Calloway did return to the floor Wednesday, the senior point guard didn't start and was limited to two points and nine minutes as he battles back from his shoulder injury.
White, meanwhile, bounced back from a three-point first half to finish with 14 points and five rebounds.
"I thought D.J. played a lot harder in the second half, and was more involved in the game," Sampson said.
Northwestern, meanwhile, was led by Doyle, who scored 15 of his 17 points in the second half. Kevin Coble (13), Craig Moore (13) and Jeff Ryan (11) also reached double figures.
Indiana now moves on to Saturday's regular finale against Penn State, which knocked off Iowa Wednesday night for its second conference win of the season. If the Hoosiers can beat the Nittany Lions, they'll wrap up the No. 3 seed in next week's Big Ten Tournament.
"We knew this was going to be a tough game," Sampson said. "We're thrilled with the win. We're 9-6, we have a chance to finish third. We'll get ready for Penn State and try as hard as we can to get our 20th win of the season."
Stemler 1-3 0-0 2, D. White 6-10 2-2 14, Bassett 3-10 2-2 10, Wilmont 11-1 70-0 31, Ratliff 2-10 2-4 8, Suhr 0-0 0-1 0, Shaw 1-2 0-3 2, Calloway 0-2 2-2 2. Totals 24-54 8-14 69.
Scott 0-0 0-0 0, Coble 6-15 0-0 13, Tolic 1-1 0-0 2, Doyle 7-15 2-2 17, Kennedy 0-1 0-0 0, Moore 5-10 1-2 13, Ryan 5-6 1-2 11, Williams 3-6 1-2 8, Okrzesik 0-1 1-2 1. Totals 27-55 6-10 65.
3-Pointers: Indiana 13-32 (Wilmont 9-13, Bassett 2-6, Ratliff 2-9, Calloway 0-2, Stemler 0-2), Northwestern 5-17 (Moore 2-7, Coble 1-4, Williams 1-2, Doyle 1-2, Okrzesik 0-1, Kennedy 0-1). Rebounds: Indiana 35 (Wilmont 12), Northwestern 28 (Coble 8). Turnovers: Indiana 17 (Ratliff 5), Northwestern 10 (Doyle 3). Assists: Indiana 17 (Bassett 9), Northwestern 19 (Doyle 8). Blocks: Indiana 3 (Stemler, Wilmont, Shaw), Northwestern 3 (Scott, Coble, Okrzesik). Steals: Indiana 5 (Wilmont 2), Northwestern 12 (Coble 4).
Wilmont's Heroics Lifts IU Past 'Cats
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