BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – No. 2 Indiana accepted its Big Ten championship trophy and still cut down the nets inside Assembly Hall on Tuesday night
Even after a loss.
Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft scored the first nine points in a late 11-2 run that sent No. 14 Ohio State past the Hoosiers 67-58, keeping the Big Ten title hopes alive for the Buckeyes and three other teams.
"We earned that right," Indiana senior Jordan Hulls said about the traditional postgame net-cutting ceremony coming after a loss. "Obviously, we didn't like to lose, but we earned that right to cut down the nets. We would have liked to have won but we couldn't dwell on that."
The Hoosiers (25-5, 13-4) wanted this night all to themselves. They could still win their first outright title since 1993 with a win Sunday at No. 7 Michigan.
Five years after coach Tom Crean took over a team that had hit rock bottom, they found their way back to the top of the conference chase. Sunday's losses by Michigan State and Wisconsin gave Indiana a share of their first conference title in 11 years. And a win over the Buckeyes would have clinched Indiana's first outright league crown since 1993.
All the trimmings were in place.
Three seniors — Derek Elston, Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford — were playing their final home game. Sophomore Cody Zeller and junior Victor Oladipo might have played their last home game, too.
Familiar names such as Kent Benson, the star of 1976's undefeated national championship team, and Isiah Thomas, star of the 1981 national championship team, were there and rock singer John Mellencamp was inside Assembly Hall, too.
Students showed up with dozens of colorful signs that included phrases such as "Windiana" and waited outside for hours through the rain, sleet, snow and dropping temperatures to get as close as they could to the court.
But nothing went as planned.
Zeller finished with 17 points and four rebounds and Watford had 12 points on a night the Hoosiers never managed to take control.
"We just didn't execute offensively. We allowed way too many transition buckets," Hulls said. "We turned the ball over too much. We'd play great 'D' and they'd get one at the end. We just didn't go a job of playing with that edge we needed to have."
This wasn't just a victory for Ohio State (22-7, 12-5 Big Ten). It kept at least half of the league's teams in a title chase that will now go down to the final day of the regular season.
Thomas and Craft weren't going to let a celebration take place at their expense.
Thomas finished with 18 points and eight rebounds, while Craft added 15 points, four rebounds, four assists and four steals. And they combined for the first nine points in the decisive 11-2 run that forced Indiana to spend the rest of the game playing catch-up.
The win puts Ohio State in the unenviable position of rooting for Michigan to help create a logjam atop America's toughest conference this season.
"We have to root for them (the Wolverines). They rooted for us last year and I'm sure they rooted for us this year," Thomas said. "Now we're going to have to root for them, and hopefully they can knock them (Hoosiers) off at their place."
Getting back to this position wasn't easy. Ohio State heads into Sunday's regular season finale against Illinois with four straight wins and needing a fifth consecutive victory — and the Wolverines' win — just to get a share of the league title.
The Buckeyes had to be every bit as physical as the Hoosiers inside and on defense.
Craft exemplified their tough style when he crashed hard to the court after attempting a layup on a fast break. He still played well enough down the stretch to prevent the Hoosiers from coming back.
"We were just more active tonight. There was no secret what they wanted to do," Buckeyes coach Thad Matta said. "They wanted to go inside with Zeller and Watford. But it was just more activity and we felt like we knew where they were going to be diving from. Kind of a do both type game. You had to do it and then take away the 3s."
The Buckeyes scored the final seven points of the first half to take a 28-25 lead.
Indiana scored the first five points and made its first five shots of the second half to take a 39-34 lead.
Ohio State answered with a 14-4 run, and when Indiana closed to 50-48 with 7:07 to go, Craft and Thomas scored nine of the next 11 Ohio State points to pull away.
"We just kept telling our guys 'Poise. Poise. Just keep your poise,' and we made some big buckets," Matta said. "We pressed a little bit there, but it's like we told them 'They're scoring but we're missing layups.' I thought our guys played through it pretty well."