Reborn Hoosiers show toughness in narrow win over No. 16 Michigan
Indiana stayed unbeaten at home by narrowly beating a third ranked opponent
The Hoosiers showed toughness in building a lead in the second half
The season has been a reward for fans who observed three 20-loss seasons
These Hoosiers sure do know how to keep things interesting. Christian Watford, who led all scorers with 25 points, missed the second of two free throws with three seconds left, and the rebound fell into the arms of Michigan's Zack Novak. A heave at the buzzer fell short, and Indiana stayed unbeaten at home by downing yet another ranked opponent in dramatic fashion 73-71.
Indiana's successful recruiting of native son Cody Zeller was rightly heralded as the beginning of a new dawn for the Hoosiers, a sign that the future would once again be bright. Unwilling to defer glory any longer, the program builders and unheralded place-holders who stuck it out through three straight 20-loss seasons are battling to make sure the future starts now.
Watford led Indiana to a 39-32 halftime lead after Zeller picked up two fouls and had to cool his heels on the bench. The Wolverines came back hot to start the second half and tied the game up 46-all with 14:16 left, but the Hoosiers displayed the resourceful toughness that has defined Tom Crean's fourth season in Bloomington. Watford canned two free throws, and Zeller scored seven straight points to put Michigan back in the rear-view mirror for good, but hidden in the 19-9 run that followed were several reminders of the mental and physical toughness Crean has preached since he signed on to clean up the blue-blood program in distress: senior Matt Roth's clutch three, Derek Elston's gritty interior play, Victor Oladipo's tendency to be everywhere doing everything.
Michigan's trapping, double-teaming defense brought the Wolverines back over the final seven minutes, holding Zeller -- who had seemed unstoppable at times on his way to an 18 point night -- scoreless down the stretch and limiting Watford to just one point. In fact, the visiting team might have stolen a win if not for an off night from Tim Hardaway, Jr., who shot just 36 percent from the floor and missed all seven of his three-point attempts. Hardaway was also frequently the weakest link defensively, reacting slowly to drives and allowing Indiana's guards to operate in open space.
The resurgent 14-1 Hoosiers travel to Penn State (1-2 Big Ten) and host Minnesota (0-3) before a January 15 road rematch with No. 7 Ohio State. The Buckeyes will look to avenge the New Year's Eve loss to Indiana that dropped them from the top five, while the Hoosiers hope that the dynamic interior duo of Watford and Zeller can keep All-American Jared Sullinger in check.
Nailing down road wins in wild fashion might prove difficult, but faithful Indiana fans, who stuck with their beloved Hoosiers through some very lean times, can revel in the fact that Assembly Hall is a tough place to play again.