The pressure was on IU to show up with intensity and toughness in their first round Big Ten Tournament game against Penn State or else lose sight of a NCAA tournament bid that seemed a lock a few months ago. Inconsistency and lack of rhythm have plagued the Hoosiers all year. For one afternoon, all appeared to be right with IU basketball as the Hoosiers resoundingly whipped the Nittany Lions 77-49 in a must win game behind inspired play from George Leach and Tom Coverdale. Of course, Jeff Newton led IU, dominating the inside for 23 points on 9-of-14 shooting with no Penn State player able to contain him.
The Hoosiers now move on to face the Michigan Wolverines tomorrow night in quarterfinal action. Also, IU, a bubble team because of Saturday's loss at PSU, might have locked up a NCAA tournament bid with the big win. With Minnesota playing their way out of the tournament with a loss to Northwestern earlier today, Georgia not going, and mid-major teams that are suppose to be winning their conference tournaments winning them, the Hoosiers chances are looking bright.
The first half start was a struggle as both teams were sluggish on offense to begin with. Brandon Watkins, who led all Penn State scorers with 17 points, was the only offensive threat for the Nittany Lions early on, penetrating past Hoosier defenders and keeping his team in the game. Coverdale, who chipped in 13 points, led the IU charge late in the first half with a nice dish to Newton for a basket, a huge three, and two free throws to extend the Hoosier lead to 28-19.
Coach Mike Davis called out his seniors before the game for a lack of leadership and for them to lead the young IU team to the NCAA's. Coverdale responded in a big way. Also, a huge spark from the bench in the form of A.J. Moye (offensive putback, drawing an offensive foul, and a nice pass to Leach for a dunk) and Newton's three-pointer at the horn gave the Hoosiers a comfortable 36-24 lead at the half.
Second half disasters have characterized this IU basketball team. This day was not one of those as IU went inside early on in the half with Newton and Leach combining for eight points in a mini-Hoosier run to put more distance between the teams. The Nittany Lions never challenged IU again. This game was drastically from last Saturday's meeting when Penn State controlled the paint area. Leach, who finished with 11 points and 5 blocks, and Newton totally shut down Jan Jagla. The Nittany Lion big man had 26 points in the last meeting but foul trouble and Leach blocking shots held him to only 8 points.
The stingy Hoosier defense, rarely seen this season, held Penn State to 39% from the field while IU rained in 7-of 13 three pointers and a remarkable 53% shooting percentage. One of the main differences in the game was that Bracey Wright scored his first points of the game with 10 minutes left in the game. The surprising thing about this was that IU was ahead 58-34 at that point. Other players picked up the slack offensively and intensity was there all game, Coverdale and Leach stepped up their games, Moye provided solid bench relief, and once again Newton was the unstoppable main man down low.
IU's next opponent, Michigan, is a rematch of the only contest that the two teams played this season. The Hoosiers, in perhaps their best all-around performance of the season, won convincingly 63-49 as IU held the Wolverines to 18 first half points and outrebounded them 39-30, one of the only times that the Hoosiers have done that. Yet that game was played in front of their fans at the friendly confines of Assembly Hall, not the United Center, the site of the Big Ten Tournament.
Michigan, who is on probation and cannot play in the NCAA tournament, is led by the one-two combo of LaVell Blanchard and freshman Daniel Horton, both averaging more than 15 points a game. Horton resembles Penn State guard Brandon Watkins in that he penetrates to create shots for himself and others but also can shoot the three pointer. IU had trouble tonight containing Watkins and must find a way to close off the lanes to drive. Blanchard is the main outside shooting threat, firing at 41% from three point range. Coverdale or Wright, the likely defensive match-ups, must limit his shots and force him to let other Wolverine players beat the Hoosiers.
The big key is that this is Michigan's NCAA tournament. With the Big Dance ban in effect, Blanchard and company have nothing else to play for. IU must take this into account, and not falling behind early in the game will squash the opening emotional moments. Coverdale and Leach must be effective once again for the Hoosiers to be in position to win. This team is young, but as Davis said, the older players on the team will decide how far this group goes in March.
Hoosiers Play Complete Game
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