My old high school teammate Tom Schuller used to always say that the basket is a cruel mistress. That rang true more than ever Saturday in Assembly Hall. Down 73-71 with two seconds left, Yogi Ferrell stepped to the line for Indiana. He was 9-of-10 before that trip and an 85-percent free throw shooter on the year. After he knocked down the first, members of the IU crowd fell so silent you could hear fans biting their nails in front of television sets across the state of Indiana. Here was a chance to go to overtime and get a win against a tough, gritty Michigan State (21-10, 12-6) team that they desperately wanted. The second free throw took an unfriendly bounce and rolled off the rim. It doesn’t get much crueler than that. IU went on to lose 74-72. It’s difficult to be mad at the leader of the Hoosiers (19-12, 9-9) who finished with 21 points, seven rebounds and six assists, but IU’s head is now treading just above the water as the Hoosiers drop their third consecutive game and eight of their last 12. This isn’t the first time this season Ferrell has failed to come up in a big spot either, missing potential game-winning and tying shots at Maryland and against Purdue. Ferrell said afterwards, “I guess the basketball gods felt good for me for that first free throw, and the second one just rolled out. Pretty disappointing missing that second one, but it happens.”
Tom Crean commended his players’ fight despite their efforts coming up short. Down 67-56 with three minutes left, Crean’s squad came roaring back behind big shots from Ferrell and James Blackmon Jr., who chipped in with 17 of his own. “I’m proud of our fight.,” Crean said. “We fought better in the game. You have to be. Michigan State is going to bring the toughness out in you.” Tom Izzo’s team left the door open with several missed free throws late, a trend the Spartans would like to break. After Matt Costello missed two foul shots, Blackmon sunk two. That was followed by Travis Trice going one for two with Denzel Valentine bumping Ferrell on his way down the floor, which resulted in the game-tying free throws.
Blackmon didn’t feel exactly the same way as his coach. “Well myself I feel like I came out too slow, and I feel like we all tried to turn it on too late,” he said.
Although he said he was proud of their fight, Crean didn’t shy away from the team’s shortcomings and brought up the team’s rebounding several times, “If I have to pin point anything is that we have to get better rebounding the ball,” he said. Michigan State out-rebounded Indiana 40 to 35 including 15 offensive rebounds that led to 18 second-chance points for the Spartans. Michigan State accomplished these numbers without Branden Dawson, who has been averaging a double double this season. He was forced to sit out today after taking an elbow to the head against Purdue. Crean pointed to rebounding as a key all season long. He turned to the stats, saying that IU is plus-eight rebounding when it wins but average five less rebounds a game than opponents in conference losses.
Despite the disappointment and the bad taste IU will have in its mouth until the Big Ten Tournament, there were some bright spots. After hitting five 3-pointers in his last outing vs Iowa, Nick Zeisloft kept his hot hand, going five for eight from deep and ending with 17 points. But the rest of the bench had just two points.
Barring a few exceptions, the game had all the trademarks of a big Indiana win. The game was at home. The 3-pointer was falling at a decent enough rate, IU hit nine threes in 24 tries, and IU had cleaned up its poor free throw shooting from its recent match ups. After being out-shot by about five attempts per game in its last 11 games, Indiana hit 15 of 20 while MSU went 11 of 20. More absent than anything was the presence of Troy Williams.
After a steal and slam in the opening minutes, Williams ended with just four points and three rebounds – much lower than his averages of almost 14 and seven. His lack of presence was evident. Crean said that he really wasn’t sure what prevented Williams from getting in a rhythm, but he isn’t concerned. He praised the excellent year Williams has had as well as his maturity and added, “I pretty much know he’ll bounce back.”
As for Michigan State, the win came down to toughness, a bounce of the ball and balance. Of the 10 players that stepped on the floor for Tom Izzo, eight scored. Travis Trice led the way with 21, Bryn Forbes had 16 and despite averaging just four and a half points per game on the season, freshman Marvin Clark Jr. stepped up in the absence of Branden Dawson with 14 points and six rebounds. With back-to-back close wins to wrap up the regular season, Michigan State is playing well headed into the Big Ten Tournament. Combine that groove with a wealth of experience and Tom Izzo roaming the sideline, and they have a chance to do some real damage in March.
IU is now headed into the Big Ten Tournament on a three-game slide, and if it loses its first game in in Chicago next week, it will be a big blow to Hoosiers’ tournament résumé and a bid that seemed so secure not long ago. A second consecutive year without March Madness won’t spell good things for Crean, who has been under heavy criticism from the IU fan base. He’s doing his best to block out the noise, however. “I don’t read anything with my name in it,” he said. When asked about how he gets the team to focus while struggling he said, “We talk a lot about what we have to do. What we have to ignore, what we have to work through, what we have to process.” With a first round bye, Indiana has five days until its first game of the Big Ten tournament where it might need to make some noise to ensure it doesn’t slip on the wrong side of the bubble.
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