DAYTON, Ohio — If we had told you two weeks ago that Indiana would not only play an NCAA Tournament game, but also win and control their opponent from start to finish, what would you say?
The Hoosiers (21-13) did just that on Tuesday night, using their suffocating defense, as well as the frontcourt presence of Trayce Jackson-Davis and Jordan Geronimo, grabbing a 66-58 victory over Wyoming (25-9).
Indiana’s only injury concern, Geronimo (knee), warmed up before the game in a full capacity. He was given the green light, which meant all 13 Hoosier scholarship players were available for the First Four showdown.
Mike Woodson started the same five that took the floor on opening night vs. Eastern Michigan: Xavier Johnson, Parker Stewart, Miller Kopp, Race Thompson, and Trayce Jackson-Davis. Nerves clearly affected both teams in the initial phase of the contest. It was the first NCAA Tournament game for IU since 2016, and the first for Wyoming since 2015.
Indiana missed six of its first seven shots. Wyoming one-upped the Hoosiers, missing seven of eight. An awkward palmed shot in the paint by Stewart clanged in off the backboard to give IU an early 4-3 lead.
The Hoosiers went ahead 9-3 through baskets by Johnson and Thompson, but Wyoming would settle into the game thanks to scores from all-Mountain West point guard Hunter Maldonado and starter Brendan Wenzel.
The defenses were ahead of the offenses on both ends of the floor for the vast majority of the first half. The matchup of the night pitted IU’s preseason All-American Jackson-Davis against Wyoming’s star forward, Graham Ike. Jackson-Davis went at Ike repeatedly, to the tune of 14 first half points on 4-6 from the field. Jackson-Davis also made six of his seven first half free throws. He also moved his way up on IU’s all-time scoring list.
As much as TJD scored, his defense stood out even more against Ike. Ike, who averaged 19.6 PPG and 52% shooting from the field this season, missed his first five shots, overpowered by Jackson-Davis in the key. Jackson-Davis officially had one block in the game; however, he affected a number of other attempts.
Overall, IU struggled to make its field goal attempts, hitting at merely a 32.4% clip in the first 20 minutes. As Woodson said after the game, “I think our guys responded. We just kept grinding.”
Meanwhile, on the other end of the court, Wyoming turned the ball over at an alarming rate.
The Cowboys came into the game committing 11.2 turnovers per game, 53rd out of 358 teams in Division I. Indiana, one of the elite defenses in college basketball, forced Wyoming’s 12th and 13th turnovers before the intermission. Maldonado committed seven of his own, as IU threw a multitude of different at the driving, post-up guard.
After the break, IU had to withstand a Wyoming spurt that brought the Cowboys within a single point. It was Ike’s best stretch of the game. He had three points going into halftime, but recorded five more before the first media timeout of the second half. He drew Thompson’s third foul in the process.
This is when Jordan Geronimo rose to the occasion. IU’s athletic reserve forward, who missed the Iowa game, impressed against Wyoming in the second half. If this were the Oscars, Jackson-Davis would have won the award for “Best Actor,” while Geronimo would have received “Best Actor in a Supporting Role.”
Geronimo used explosive putback dunks to electrify the Hoosiers. He had two in the first half, and his third and final one gave the Hoosiers a five-point advantage with 15:27 to go.
Geronimo wouldn’t stop there. When he didn’t dunk the ball, he found the soft spot in the Cowboys’ defensive coverages inside, and when they adapted to that, Geronimo stretched the floor. His three-pointer midway through the second half gave IU a six-point lead.
“He’s a freak. That is what we call him, a freak of nature,” Jackson-Davis said of Geronimo after the game.
When Geronimo knocked down his final points of the game, points off another Maldonado turnover, he set a new career-high of 15 points. Geronimo also added seven rebounds, his fifth game this season of seven or more boards.
IU’s defense restricted Wyoming for the second half. Maldonado finished with 10 turnovers, a career-high in his 128th career college game. The Cowboys rarely got a clean look from three-point land as they attempted their comeback, making just two of 10 attempts from deep. On the other end of the floor, Jackson-Davis iced the game with two emphatic slams, finishing with 29 points on the night.
Overall, the Hoosiers led by at least five points for the final 12:36 of the game, never allowing their Mountain West opponent to threaten “Madness,” important at this time of year.
Indiana heads to Portland, Oregon immediately after tonight’s game to face the five-seed Saint Mary’s in the Round of 64. Tip will take place at 7:20 PM ET on TBS. Indiana has opened as a 2.5-point underdog on DraftKings Sportsbook.
Featured Image: Big Ten Network