BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Northwestern came to Indiana with one goal Wednesday night: Put another impressive victory on its NCAA tournament resume.
The Hoosiers played the impolite host.
Freshman center Cody Zeller scored 23 points, and senior guard Verdell Jones scored all six of his points in the final 4:03, leading No. 18 Indiana past the Wildcats 71-66 — a potentially destructive blow to Northwestern's tourney hopes.
"We've got to get eight wins, so what do we have five games left? So we have to beat some," coach Bill Carmody said. "How many are at home? Three. OK, right there. You have to do that so you're in the discussion. We're playing at a decent level, I think, but somehow we have to get the wins."
Northwestern (15-10, 5-8 Big Ten) will certainly have its chances over the next 2 1/2 weeks.
The Wildcats will host Minnesota and No. 17 Michigan in the next two games. Then Northwestern travels to Penn State, hosts No. 6 Ohio State and closes at Iowa — needing what Carmody believes is three more wins.
Can they do it? Yes. Will it be easy? No way.
"It's imperative to defend home court," leading scorer John Shurna said after scoring 29 points at Indiana. "I think if we want to make something of this season, then we're going to have to win at home."
Northwestern had won six of the previous seven games against the Hoosiers and nearly ruined their planned celebration.
After three straight losing seasons, Hoosiers fans were just hoping for a winning record.
But the Hoosiers have given them so much more. They upset No. 1 Kentucky and then No. 2 Ohio State in December, becoming the first Big Ten team in nearly six decades to beat the nation's top two teams in the same season. They've gone 15-1 at home, and now, for the first time in coach Tom Crean's four seasons, the Hoosiers have won 20 games, too.
"Tonight was about us somehow finding a way to get our 20th win," Crean said. "We really wanted to do that at home because of all we've been through and all our fans have been through. It's not something that you look at and say that automatically gives you anything. I'm really glad with the way we earned it tonight with some really good defensive stops."
The primary reasons for the remarkable turnaround are the emergence of Zeller and the toughness of the seniors — a combination that was on full display Wednesday.
At times, Zeller single-handedly kept Indiana in the game.
Jones, who had missed the previous 2 1/2 games with a bruised right shoulder and didn't look like himself in the first half, rallied his teammates with a late surge that proved he difference. He broke a 63-63 tie with a 15-foot baseline jumper, extended the lead to 67-63 with a layup and then sealed the victory with a long jumper from the left wing that was originally ruled a 3 but overturned on a replay review — but still good enough to seal Northwestern's fate.
"I thought the way that he (Jones) played in the second half, it's what you want every player to understand that if you're really locked in defensively, it's going to carry over into your offense," Crean said. "He was really in a good groove inside of the game."
Jones wasn't the only Indiana player in sync against the Wildcats.
Zeller again provided the inside presence, missing only two of 11 shots. He finished with seven rebounds, three assists, one steal and, at times, carried the Hoosiers' offense.
Christian Watford and Victor Oladipo each had 12 points and the Hoosiers overcame a season-low 15.4 percent shooting effort from 3-point range by limiting the Wildcats to 6 of 20 from beyond the arc.
Drew Crawford had for Northwestern, but the Wildcats' two-man tandem didn't get enough help from their teammates. Northwestern was outscored 22-1 off the bench, and just couldn't keep up with Jones' late surge.
As usual, Northwestern made it tough.
It erased a 28-21 deficit with an 8-2 run late in the first half, but after closing to 30-29, the Hoosiers extended the lead to 37-31 at the half.
The Wildcats opened the second half on a 12-2 run to take a 43-39 lead on Shurna's tip-in with 16:51 to go.
Zeller and Will Sheehey then rallied the Hoosiers, scoring all of the points in a 10-2 run that gave Indiana a 49-45 advantage.
The back-and-forth went on the rest of the night, until Jones changed the game with his midrange jumper and the ensuing layup to make it 67-63 with 2:49 to go and then sealed it with the long range shot with 29.4 seconds left.
"They made big plays when they had to make big plays," Carmody said. "We took the lead and things were going pretty nicely and then they made a couple of really good stops and certain guys on their team — Jones made a nice little baseline jumper off the bounce and then they hit that big 3."