BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Crunch time arrived at Assembly Hall and Big Ten basketball drama with it.
Somebody had to blink.
Would it be Indiana, which continued its run of injuries, this time with senior standout Juwan Morgan?
Or would Northwestern, fighting a raucous Assembly Hall crowd as well as the Hoosiers, buckle against the pressure?
The short answer on Saturday afternoon – IU (6-2) earned a 68-66 nail-biter of a conference-opening victory.
The long answer in a game in which neither team led by more than five points — this will take some explaining.
With Northwestern leading 61-58 and the clock approaching three minutes, Morgan hit the floor with a right leg injury. In obvious pain, he had to be helped to the bench. That cost the Hoosiers 17 points, 12 rebounds and lots of leadership.
It also left freshman standout Romeo Langford with the hero burden if he was ready for it.
He was — big time.
Langford attacked the lane to hit a crucial 12-foot floater, defended Northwestern do-it-all guard Vic Law into a turnover and, in short, did what an elite player is supposed to do when it mattered most. He finished with 20 points and five rebounds in 36 minutes.
“When Juwan went down,” Langford said, “we knew that it was crunch time and we still had to do what it takes to win. Coach drew up a play and we executed it.”
As for the late basket, Langford said, “There were multiple options. It just happened I was open.”
As far as whether coach Archie Miller specifically told him to take over with Morgan out, Langford said, “That was stated, without saying it.”
Langford has scored at least 20 points four times this season, and leads the Hoosiers with an 18.0 average.
“We did a good job on him most of the night,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. “He’s a terrific scorer and player. He made a leaning 14-foot shot under pressure. That’s what really good players do.”
With Morgan out, Miller said, “You’ve just got to move through it. It’s like he fouled out. I looked at the group and said, ‘This is how we’re going to do it.’ We stuck with those guys and did a good job defensively.
“Guys make a couple of good plays. Romeo obviously had a couple big finishes for us in the last couple minutes. And De’Ron (Davis) was really important; I wish I would have played him a lot more. He needed to be in there. We’re going to try and work him in there more.
“It’s hard, man, you play a conference game like that this early in the season with that much at stake. It’s an intensity level that’s not like any other non-conference game.”
Added forward Justin Smith: “When we saw (Morgan) go down, there was definitely some concern. But in any game, it’s next man up. We just wanted to get out of here with a win.”
“For our guys to find a way to win a game in December, a conference game that’s fought that hard, is a good thing, especially coming off a loss,” Miller said. “A bounce-back is what you need to gain confidence and keep working. That’s what we’re going to do.”
Morgan’s injury remained a post-game mystery. He appeared to bang his right shin during action and tried to play through it before buckling to the floor.
“I’m not sure what the status is,” Miller said. “You hope for the best.”
Miller has expressed those hopes with multiple Hoosiers this season. Nearly everyone on the roster has been banged up. Five key players have missed at least one game with an injury.
“Mentally it’s staying together as a team,” said guard Devonte Green, who has missed three games.
Miller wanted no carry over from last week’s Duke loss. He wanted the Hoosiers to sharpen half-court execution, limit turnovers and dictate pace.
Playing at home against somebody other than Duke made that task easier – IU shot 56.5 percent from the field with 13 turnovers, seven fewer than its total at Duke — not that Northwestern (6-2) was easy.
“They have some tough concepts to defend,” Miller said. “They give you a Princeton-type feel. They can control the game without getting sped up.”
The Wildcats arrived with a three-game winning streak that included victories over Utah in the Wooden Legacy and Georgia Tech in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge.
The Wildcats (6-2) had four double-figure scorers, including Law (17.9 points, 6.3 rebounds) and center Dererk Pardon (12.3, 9.6), whose 60.4 percent shooting reflected the fact he’s the most accurate shooter in program history.
Law finished with 16 points and nine rebounds. Pardon had 24 points (on 11-for-15 shooting) and 10 rebounds.
IU surged to an early 9-4 lead behind Al Durham’s five points. Northwestern surged back for a 13-13 tie behind Law.
The Wildcats pushed ahead by five. The Hoosiers pushed back for a 37-33 halftime lead. They shot 61 percent from the field with just six turnovers.
Northwestern scored the first four points of the second half. IU got the next five. The Wildcats scored 10 of the next 12 points for a 47-44 lead with 14 minutes left.
Back-and-forth action ensued.
With 3:30 left, the Wildcats edged in front 61-58 and Morgan went down.
Langford came back with that floater. Green hit a pair of free throws. Smith added two more free throws, plus a press-beating basket. Langford hit a jumper.
The Hoosiers would survive, with this thought – they travel to Penn State (which beat top-16 Virginia Tech last week) on Tuesday.
“It’s definitely a reality check because we’re going to come down to the wire almost every night (in Big Ten play),” Green said. “Every team in the Big Ten is good. Every game is going to be a battle.”