Bloomington – Indiana didn't give Grace College its LeMoyne moment Wednesday night at Assembly Hall.
A sluggish first half gave way to a second-half onslaught as Tom Crean's new-look Hoosiers whipped its NAIA foe in their exhibition opener, 96-73, in front of an announced crowd of 15,453. In doing so, Indiana avoided the exhibition embarrassment that Syracuse endured one night earlier when it was upset by little-known LeMoyne, 82-79.
Early on it appeared the Hoosiers might be pushed by the small-division Indiana school. Grace's David Henry connected on three 3-pointers in the first three minutes to get his team off to a quick start, and Grace proceeded to stay with Indiana for the game's first 25 minutes. But a 54-point second half barrage by Crean's team turned a back-and-forth contest into a blowout.
"We eventually wore them down," said Christian Watford. "We did a great job of getting some stops and getting some key turnovers late that pushed us over the edge."
Watford led the way with 19 points and 11 rebounds in his collegiate debut, while fellow freshman Jordan Hulls added 14 points three assists and three steals. Tom Pritchard (12 points), Jeremiah Rivers (12), Verdell Jones (10) and Derek Elston (10) also reached double figures.
Crean said he headed into the contest with three goals – to pressure the ball, to challenge shots and to win the rebounding battle decisively. Indiana did each of things, particularly in the second half when it quickly turned a close game into a rout midway through the second half. Indiana forced Grace into 15 second half turnovers and out-rebounded its foe by 11 in the game's final 20 minutes.
"We felt at halftime if we could keep the pressure up, there would be a point in the second half that we'd wear them down and I think that happened," Crean said.
It happened five minutes into the second half with Indiana leading by just two, 48-46. Elston drove the baseline, spun and scored on a acrobatic layup, and Hulls followed with a 3-pointer to push the lead to seven. During the next four minutes Grace sprinkled in three turnovers and three missed shots, and Indiana put together a 14-2 run that extended the lead to 14, 62-48.
Grace would get no closer than 11 the rest of the way.
"The defensive pressure is what really pushed us over," said Hulls, who made 5-of-6 shots, had three steals and didn't commit a turnover in 21 minutes. "About the 10 minute mark is really when we flipped it over and got more points on the boards and got some steals and some easy buckets."
Indiana finished with 18 steals and 33 points off turnovers. Hulls, Watford, Tom Pritchard and Maurice Creek all had three steals, helping Indiana score transition points in bunches and eventually run away with the game in the second half.
"I wanted to smell momentum tonight," Crean said. "When we had it I didn't want to give it back."
Indiana didn't, and in doing so came away with a convincing win against a team that won 22 games a year ago and advanced to the NAIA Elite Eight. Grace was led by David Swanson, who overcame some early foul trouble to score 19 points.
"We learned Grace is a real tough team," Rivers said. "They really got after it. We come away with some good things, some bad things, and we learned we'll have to continue to improve."
That improvement will come, but there figure to be plenty of growing pains along the way. Indiana did have some issues with its transition defense Wednesday and Grace also had a handful of wide open looks with its pick-and-roll. Those issues give Crean's team plenty to work on in the coming days as they get ready for Monday's exhibition game against St. Francis.
Grace Coach Jim Kessler said he was impressed with what he saw from Crean's team, but his 33 years of experience have taught him that Indiana will have grow as the schedule becomes more difficult down the road.
"I think they're as young as a team can be," said Kessler. "Some of their strengths is in young players. I don't care how talented you are, youth has to mature, youth has to grow. You don't mature until you get on the court and play and you have to learn how to win together. That takes time."
Watford 5-13 9-9 19, Pritchard 4-9 4-6 12, Creek 2-6 0-0 5, Rivers 6-10 0-0 12, Jones 3-7 4-6 10, Barnett 0-1 0-0 0, Hulls 5-6 2-2 14, Moore 0-1 0-0 0, Capobianco 1-4 2-2 4, Gambles 1-3 1-4 3, Roth 3-6 0-0 7, Elston 5-8 0-0 10, Jobe 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 35-75 22-29 96.
Swanson 9-14 1-2 19, Johnson 2-7 2-4 6, Henry 4-9 0-0 12, Smith 5-10 2-2 14, Plumlee 3-7 5-7 11, Ross 0-1 0-0 0, Goins 1-6 3-5 5, Long 0-1 0-0 0, Achille 1-2 1-2 3, Euler 1-3 0-0 2, Kaufman 0-0 0-0 0, Hinkel 0-0 0-0 0, Peters 0-1 0-0 0, VanDuyne 0-0 0-0 0, Arnold 0-0 0-0 0, Hoffman 0-0 1-2 1. Totals 26-61 15-24 73.
3-Pointers: Indiana 4-13 (Hulls 2-2, Roth 1-4, Creek 1-5, Watford 0-1, Moore 0-1), Grace 6-15 (Henry 4-7, Smith 2-6, Goins 0-1, Euler 0-1). Rebounds: Indiana 49 (Watford 11), Grace 36 (Johnson 9). Assists: Indiana 21 (Jones 8), Grace 14 (Plumlee 6). Turnovers: Indiana 17 (Creek 5, Jones 5), Grace 25 (Plumlee 8). Blocks: Indiana 3 (Pritchard, Rivers, Jones), Grace 6 (Johnson 6). Steals: Indiana 18, Grace 10. Officials: Steve Welmer, John Higgins, Bo Boroski. Attendance: 15,453. Halftime Score: Indiana 42, Grace 36.
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