COLUMBUS, Ohio – The path to a championship that has eluded Indiana University basketball since 2002 begins on the banks of the Olentangy River.
It will also cross through East Lansing, Minneapolis, and Ann Arbor over the next month.
As an insane year continues at the top of the rankings-one which Indiana occupied for the moment on Sunday-on thing remains set in stone. Win on the road and the Big Ten Championship will return to Bloomington.
Of the five teams left in legitimate contention for the conference championship the Hoosiers will play four of them on the road before the season ends, starting with tenth-ranked Ohio State at Value City Arena. Though a bizarre last-second loss to Illinois was a stinger for the players and fans, a chance to grab a share of the conference lead would come with a road victory over the Buckeyes.
So far, they’re a quarter of the way there.
Indiana made a strong start to the game and the second half hold up as they beat Ohio State 81-68 Sunday afternoon to boost their conference record to 9-2 and earn a share of the Big Ten lead with Michigan State, who beat Purdue on Saturday night.
“It takes consciousness,” said Indiana head coach Tom Crean of the Hoosiers’ ability to close the game out after taking a big second half lead. “When our guys absorb what they need to do and do it, that’s when you can put a team away.”
With the victory and the flurry of losses below then in the Top 25, there is a chance the Hoosiers could retain the number one ranking when the polls are released on Monday.
Guard Victor Oladipo scored a career-high 26 points while Cody Zeller had 24 and Christian Watford scored 20 and tied a season-high with four three-pointers. Fort Wayne native Deshaun Thomas led the Buckeyes with 26 points but couldn’t prevent Indiana from winning their first Big Ten conference road game against a top ten opponent since a victory at No. 9 Iowa on Feb 6, 1993.
It was the first win over a top ten team on the road of any kind since a triumph over tenth-ranked Notre Dame in 2000.
“We made it a big key to put it away, keep playing to win, not playing for the time to run out,” said Zeller of the team’s mentality heading into the game with Ohio State after the late collapse against the Illini.
As they did in Champaign the Hoosiers has the advantage through most of the first half. It started with a quick run to open, one which saw Indiana grab a five-point lead on a three-pointer by Jordan Hulls. Former Indiana Mr. Basketball Thomas helped to bring the Buckeyes back with his 13-first half points and even helped the grab a 19-18 for a moment with a free throw.
But a balanced Indiana attack helped to push the lead back out towards the end of the half as Zeller (12 first-half points), Oldadpo (12 first half points) and Watford (10 first half points) helped Indiana go on a 23-14 run to end the half. Oladipo’s ally-oop reverse layup and big slam highlighted the stretch which put the Hoosiers up 41-33 at the break.
“We just know each others tendencies,” said Oladipo of his ability to work well with Watford and Zeller, which would help the trio score 70 of Indiana’s 81 points on the game. ”
Foul trouble then gave the Hoosiers a chance to open things up as center Amir Williams and guard Aaron Craft each picked up their third fouls in the first five minutes. Meanwhile Indiana used seven points from Oladipo to go on a 19-7 run that pushed their advantage to 13-a run which Ohio State would never answer.
A late burst by the Buckeyes got the lead under double digits but free throws by the Hoosiers prevented a repeat of the loss at Illinois and the most critical road win for Indiana so far this Big Ten season.
“We couldn’t let them set the pace,” said Crean when asked what was the key to the Hoosiers pulling away late. “It was an incredibly touch environment and I thought our team handled it well.
From start to finish in their first big step on the road to a Big Ten Championship.