BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP)—D.J. White wanted to leave Indiana as a winner. Eric Gordon wouldn’t accept anything less.
The tandem that put the 18th-ranked Hoosiers back in the national picture this season and then helped their teammates overcome a midseason coaching change gave Assembly Hall fans one final, fitting celebration Wednesday night.
White scored 17 points in his home finale, including a buzzer-beating 3-pointer just before halftime, while Gordon scored nine of his 20 points in a decisive run to help Indiana get past Minnesota 69-55 and keep its Big Ten title hopes alive.
“A couple of tears fell,” White said. “Last time here, great fans, great crowd. I’ll miss it a lot.”
While White certainly felt the tug of emotions as fans chanted his name, the game also served as a reminder of the uncertainty surrounding the future of this storied program.
When White mentioned Gordon during his postgame speech, fans responded by chanting “one more year” even though most believe the freshman star is headed to the NBA next season. Interim coach Dan Dakich opened the festivities by speaking to the crowd in what may go down as his final home game in charge of the program.
And when Dakich mentioned athletic director Rick Greenspan, fans booed loudly.
But to Dakich, Wednesday night’s game was never about him, NCAA investigations or even the future. It was about the players who had rekindled the fervor of Indiana basketball this season.
“What was neat was that you were there for a win,” Dakich said. “I think I’m about zero-for-my-last-four in Senior Nights, so that was neat to get a win.”
About a dozen students showed up in former coach Kelvin Sampson’s trademark attire—blue oxford shirt and red tie—and players mentioned their ex-coach during postgame interviews.
Yet on the court, it was all about basketball.
The Hoosiers (25-5, 14-3) won their 25th regular-season game for the first time since 1992-93 and are tied for second in the conference with Purdue, one-half game behind Wisconsin (14-2).
The win extended Indiana’s season record for home victories to 17 but it wasn’t easy.
The matchup between two of the conference’s top defensive teams turned into a slog, with neither team shooting better than 41 percent. There was never much separation until Gordon sparked the decisive charge over the final 8 minutes.
All Minnesota coach Tubby Smith could do was watch and wonder what the Gophers (18-11, 8-9) could have done differently to get the signature win they badly need to make their case for an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament.
“Any time you have a guy that can control the game like Eric Gordon did at the end, it puts a lot of pressure on you,” Smith said. “And D.J., he’s a first-round guy and when he starts making jump shots like he was, it opens a whole new can of worms. He (White) is my candidate for player of the year.”
White dominated the early part of the game, helping spark Indiana’s 11-0 run to build a 15-7 lead, before doing the unthinkable when Minnesota closed to 28-27 with 1.6 seconds left in the half.
The 6-foot-10 senior who has endured two coaching changes and twice broke bones in his foot during his college career, caught a baseball pass from Lance Stemler about 30 feet from the basket, turned and hit the first 3-pointer of his career to make it 31-27. The play stood up to a replay review.
“I knew it was good when it left my hand, and I know you might not believe me, but I knew it was good,” White said as he laughed. “When I released it, it just felt good. I knew it was going in.”
But even that wasn’t enough to get the Hoosiers out of their funk.
Gordon left for about 2 minutes early in the second half after it appeared he was hit in the face with an elbow while fighting for a rebound.
And Minnesota, which got 22 points from Lawrence McKenzie and 14 from Dan Coleman, continued to stay close. McKenzie and Coleman helped Minnesota (18-11, 8-9) rally from a 40-33 deficit, and it was Coleman’s layup after a scramble for a loose ball that finally gave the Gophers a 47-46 lead with 8:26 to go.
That’s when Gordon took over.
He made three of four free throws to give Indiana a 49-48 lead, found Armon Bassett for an open 3-pointer and drove in for a layup to make it 54-50 with 5:41 left. When the 18-3 run ended, Indiana had a 64-50 lead and White had the sendoff he wanted—and the one his teammates and coaches wanted for him.
“Our players in the last 8 minutes of the ballgame were really committed to making sure that D.J., Lance, Mike (White) and Adam (Ahlfeld) went to the microphone with a happy ending,” Dakich said. “We brought everybody in with whatever the timeout was and we just talked about being committed to each other and I thought for the last 10 minutes, particularly on the defensive end, they were.”