EVANSTON, Ill. (AP)—Armon Bassett had difficulty finding the right words. It was about the only time he struggled.
While some Indiana fans were glad to see coach Kelvin Sampson go, his players certainly weren’t.
“It just wasn’t the same, not having him around,” Bassett said after the No. 15 Hoosiers escaped with an 85-82 victory over Northwestern on Saturday night.
Hoosiers star Eric Gordon added: “He wasn’t just like a coach. He was more like a father to us. We just miss him.”
A day after Indiana bought out Sampson’s contract and players threatened to boycott, Bassett scored a season-high 24 points in the victory.
The game seemed like a fitting conclusion to one of the most difficult weeks in the storied program’s history. The Hoosiers had to hang on against a team still searching for its first Big Ten win.
D.J. White altered a potential go-ahead layup by Northwestern’s Michael Thompson, then hit two free throws to make it 85-82 with 5 seconds left. Thompson missed a pull-up 3-pointer at the buzzer, and the Hoosiers moved into a three-way tie for first with Wisconsin and Purdue.
It was the first step in what could be a difficult healing process.
“It’s been a long 48 hours, and everything has happened so fast,” Bassett said.
Sampson agreed to a $750,000 buyout Friday and waived his right to sue the university for further damages after the NCAA charged him with five major rules violations involving calls to recruits in a report released 10 days earlier. The school hopes the fallout doesn’t lead to more damage.
The first issue: Winning over the players, many of whom had “K.S.” scribbled on their sneakers.
The Hoosiers (23-4, 13-2 Big Ten) avoided one potential mess when the six who skipped Friday’s practice, interim coach Dan Dakich’s first, opted not to boycott the game. Instead, forward White and guards Jamarcus Ellis and Bassett were in the starting lineup as usual. Reserves Jordan Crawford, DeAndre Thomas and Brandon McGee were also available.
Crawford scored 21, and Gordon scored 18, hitting 13 of 16 free throws. White added 16 points and 11 rebounds.
“We weren’t going to sit out the game,” said Bassett, who apologized for sitting out practice.
Dakich said he understood the players’ frustrations, that their reaction was “natural,” and he never considered punishing them. By Friday night, they had sent text messages to him saying they would be ready to play.
“It wasn’t like a boycott,” Dakich said. “To ask them to go practice, they’re 18 to 22-year-old kids. … Coach was a father figure, and now, for whatever the reason, he’s no longer there. That’s a difficult thing. There was no way that I was going to sit there and demand that they (practice).”
Kevin Coble scored a career-high 37 points for Northwestern (7-18, 0-14), and his 3-pointer gave the Wildcats a 78-77 lead with 2:49 left, whipping their fans into a frenzy that only grew louder when Gordon charged into Nikola Baran.
With Indiana leading 79-78, Northwestern had a chance to go ahead in the final minute, when the Hoosiers’ Crawford attempted a long inbound pass near his own basket. Jeremy Nash intercepted the ball near midcourt, but Craig Moore missed a 3-pointer.
Bassett then hit two free throws with 34 seconds left to make it 81-78. Coble then made two free throws to bring Northwestern with one with 21.6 seconds left, but the Hoosiers hung on.
“We all knew they’ve been going through a lot, but they still executed and played with a lot of courage out there,” Wildcats coach Bill Carmody said.
A small group of fans yelled “Go IU!” as the Hoosiers made their way from the bus to the arena about an hour-and-a-half before tipoff. Someone in the Indiana party carried an old Big Ten championship trophy, a symbolic gesture with the team contending for a conference title.
That may explain why a girl sitting behind the Northwestern bench held this sign: “Thanks Kelvin! Go IU.”
But many Hoosiers fans were less than grateful for Sampson, who came under heavy fire after the NCAA claimed he provided false and misleading information to investigators from both the university and the NCAA, failed to meet the “generally recognized high standard of honesty” expected in college sports and failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance within the program.
Poor behavior by a men’s basketball coach is nothing new for Indiana. NCAA sanctions are, however.
It was no surprise that fans greeted Dakich with a standing ovation as he approached the bench just before the game. The former Hoosier and longtime assistant under Bob Knight responded by pumping his right fist.
“It was emotional for me for a lot of reasons,” Dakich said. “The one thing I have never liked as a head coach was warmups. I came out with a couple minutes to go. Usually, I come out with a minute to go. If I see someone messing around, it makes me mad. But I didn’t expect that (ovation). I was thinking, ‘Why are they cheering?’ It was nice.”
Meanwhile, Northwestern fans had some fun at Sampson’s expense, chanting “Where is Kelvin?” during timeouts.
Indiana hadn’t faced a major rules violation since 1960, and many fans were calling for Sampson’s removal after the NCAA report. The second-year coach was booed at recent home games, and one anonymous donor even gave the school $550,000 to get rid of him.
It was a rough—but perhaps fitting—end for a coach whose tenure began under a cloud of controversy, stemming from violations he committed while coaching Oklahoma.
Now, Sampson’s unemployed. And Indiana is starting a new chapter.
“I don’t think it’s something you put behind in 24, 48 hours,” Dakich said.