UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa.— This was no time for a freshman to play like a freshman, and you’d better believe Rob Phinisee didn’t.
Boy, did Indiana need that Tuesday night.
The Hoosiers had to have shut-down defense with the offense in crunch-time hibernation, and — guess what? — Phinisee delivered again.
The result — IU survived a grueling Big Ten road test with a 64-62 win at Penn State that will leave it with a 2-0 conference record and a share of the Big Ten lead until at least January.
“For us to be able to fight our way out to get two wins is good,” coach Archie Miller told Voice of the Hoosiers Don Fischer in the post-game radio show.
“Everybody is starting to figure out how good the league is and how tough the games are going to be.”
It starts with Phinisee, once the point guard of the future, now a key backcourt factor in the present. In 29 minutes, in his first ever Big Ten road game, he had 12 points, five rebounds, five assists and just one turnover. He also was 3-for-3 from the line and 1-for-2 from three-point range.
But those are just numbers. Phinisee scored, defended, passed and, in short, was the kind of second-half road catalyst usually seen in upperclassmen.
“Without question,” Miller told Fischer, “he was a complete warrior.”
Take the game’s last play. Penn State had a chance to force overtime or even win. It had the ball under its basket with 2.3 seconds left trailing 64-62, but Phinisee forced the clinching turnover.
“He stepped out on the switch to take away the pass,” Miller said, “and he got the 50-50 ball.”
Then there was freshman guard Romeo Langford, who was a second-half non-factor (two points, three shots) after being a first-half savior (15 points).
“(Penn State) did a decent job of denying him (the ball),” Miller told Fischer. “He made some good plays in transition and some unselfish plays in the half-court, but we have to do a better job of getting him going a little bit, especially since he had such a good first half.
“The coaching staff has to find a way to get him rolling when things are quiet. Have him continue to be aggressive.”
Don’t forget seldom-used forward Clifton Moore, who hadn’t done much for most of the season, but who made a big first-half impact with four rebounds and three points.
That was crucial as the Hoosiers (7-2 overall) fought back from an early nine-point deficit, built a 14-point second-half lead, and then survived a final four minutes in which they scored just one point.
“The last eight to 10 minutes, we didn’t handle the pressure well,” Miller said. “Clearly, we had to hang on, but for the most part we had a lot of guys contribute and do a lot of good things.
“We were able to figure out a way to win by one point. It will feel like a million bucks to get back on the air plane (and go home).”
And then …
“This is what it’s going to be like on the road in the Big Ten,” Miller told Fischer. “To be able to come back and find a way, especially after our start, was big.”
While IU missed its last two free throws, it did finish 11-for-14, huge for a team that entered the game shooting just 62.4 percent from the line.
Penn State (4-4, 0-2) had its own free throw shooting troubles, finishing 11-for-26.
“Penn State going 11-for-26 contributed to our win as much as anything,” Miller said, “but our guys for the most part stepped up to the line and did well.”
Penn State had flexed its muscle with an upset of top-20 Virginia Tech, then just missed winning at No. 24 Maryland.
The Nittany Lions jumped to a 9-0 lead and defended IU into missing 10 of its first 11 shots.
The Hoosiers needed a spark.
Enter guard Devonte Green, who hit a couple of off-the-bench three-pointers to get the Hoosiers going. Then Langford took over with some clutch sharp-shooting, followed by Moore’s unexpected off-the-bench impact.
Still, IU needed a driving layup from Phinisee, who was 0-for-3 from the field at the time, to take a 34-30 halftime lead.
The Hoosiers quickly built that 14-point lead before the offense fizzled, turnovers mounted (IU finished with 16) and Penn State rallied.
“As things continue to get tight,” Miller said, “we don’t continue to run our offense and share the ball. We hold it and play safe. We have to play through that, play aggressive, play to win.
“A lot of the turnovers in the second half came because we weren’t running fluid offense. We were holding the ball and dribbling too much.”
Next up is a Saturday home game against Louisville, which beat Michigan State as part of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge.
“We’ll have to have a great effort in how hard we have to play,” Miller told Fischer. “Hopefully our energy level will be up because we’ll need everything we can get to hang in there with them.”