BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP)—Mike Davis was looking for a change Wednesday night.
After watching Indiana lose two straight, shoot poorly in three straight and then having to contend with another wave of criticism, Davis altered his lineup.
Roderick Wilmont scored a career-high 23 points and tied a career-high with five 3-pointers in his first start since the start of Big Ten play, while little-used Errek Suhr provided the second-half energy to help No. 22 Indiana pull away from Northwestern 72-63.
“My teammates looked for me tonight and I knocked down most of them,” Wilmont said. “But we needed this one bad, just to get our confidence back.”
For the Hoosiers (13-5, 5-3) another win against Northwestern was essential with No. 1 Connecticut visiting Saturday. In past years, games against the Wildcats have seemed little more than a gimme.
Indiana has won 34 straight home games against Northwestern (10-9, 3-5), which has never won at Assembly Hall and hasn’t won in Bloomington since 1968.
But the Hoosiers took nothing for granted after their recent struggles.
They had produced three straight games with season-low shooting percentages before Wednesday, and the losses appeared to shake Indiana’s confidence. So Davis did the only thing could.
Wilmont, the Hoosiers’ top reserve, joined the starting lineup and delivered with the best performance of his career. Davis also gave Suhr a primary role. The 5-foot-8 guard responded with 10 points, five assists and three rebounds as he used his quickness to routinely beat the Wildcats to loose balls and find open passing lanes.
To the Hoosiers, it was the right antidote against one of the nation’s top defenses. Indiana shot 51 percent, outrebounded Northwestern 35-22 and looked more like the team that upset Illinois than the one that got routed at Minnesota.
“It’s been real hard, Coach has been picking on every little thing just to get us better,” Wilmont said. “He wanted to make sure every little thing was perfect tonight.”
Northwestern was led by Vedran Vukusic with 18 points and Mohamed Hachad with 14, but it wasn’t nearly enough for the Wildcats to avoid a fifth loss in six games. They were 8-of-24 from 3-point range, 7-of-14 from the free-throw line and rarely got the backdoor layups Bill Carmody’s offense is predicated upon.
Instead, the Hoosiers remained patient and worked for good shots in the second half, beating the Wildcats at their own game—hustle and defense.
“It was Wilmont probably, that guy seems like he likes playing against us,” Carmody said. “It seemed like different guys at different times made plays for Indiana. They made plays when they had to make them.”
Davis’ moves produced an immediate impact, too.
Instead of the sluggish starts that have plagued Indiana throughout the Big Ten season, the Hoosiers jumped to a 12-4 lead and extended it to 19-9 midway through the first half.
Northwestern fought back, tying the score twice—at 22 late in the first half and at 30 early in the second half but never took the lead.
Then Suhr changed the game.
“He works hard every time he gets in their,” said Indiana’s Robert Vaden, who scored all 11 of his points in the second half. “Every time he gets in, he does something good. He gave us a big spark tonight.”
Twice he beat the Wildcats to offensive rebounds that led to 3-pointers and gave Indiana control—plays that made Carmody squirm. And when Wilmont hit his second straight 3 with 14:14 left, the Hoosiers had rebuilt a 40-32 lead.
“I think maybe we overlooked Wilmont a little bit,” Vukusic said. “One of those offensive rebounds and turnovers we shouldn’t have had changes the game around.”
Northwestern had one more rally. This time, it used a 17-9 run to get within 58-55 with 4:18 to go.
But Wilmont’s next 3 started a 7-0 that gave Indiana a 65-55 lead and sealed the Wildcats’ fate. Indiana closed it out by making nine of 10 free throws in the final 1:40, and gave Davis a brief sense of relief.
“I didn’t really shake it up,” Davis said, laughing. “I played the guys I thought would give us a chance to win tonight, and they did it.”