BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – They darn near pulled an all-nighter at Assembly Hall, capping off a marathon evening with what might have been an unprecedented event.
Well past midnight, following a game that started at 9 p.m. ET and a Senior Night ceremony that threatened to never end, the Indiana Hoosiers hauled out stepladders and cut down the nets.
After a loss.
In a nearly empty gym.
Ever seen that before? Me neither.
That was Indiana's surreal, stubborn statement on the big picture of the season. The net-cutting followed a Big Ten championship trophy presentation, plus championship hats for the players. The Hoosiers had clinched a tie for the league title on Sunday, when Wisconsin and Michigan State both lost, and this was the first public opportunity to flaunt that fact.
But the celebration came as a jarring juxtaposition after a 67-58 upset loss to Ohio State – a demoralizing outcome that prevented the Hoosiers from clinching their first outright Big Ten title in 20 years and loosened their grip on a user-friendly NCAA tournament path through the Midwest Regional in Indianapolis.
So what exactly was this? A celebration or a slap in the face? A night of pride or a night of disappointment?
"This is the epitome of bittersweet," coach Tom Crean said, when his press conference finally got underway at roughly 1:40 a.m. ET. "We're trying to celebrate what these guys have earned, and at the same time we didn't earn it tonight. …
"There was no question we were going to [cut down the nets]. These guys have earned that. I have a responsibility to them. We're going to hang our own banner up there [in the rafters]. … They came in here and looked at those banners every day, and now they're going to get a chance to hang one."
One thing about Crean: the suffering during his first three seasons – all 20-loss debacles that followed the cratering of the program under Kelvin Sampson – was such that subsequent celebrations have been unrestrained and unapologetic. The lightning-strike victory over Kentucky last season spurred a massive court-rush unlike anything ever seen at lordly Indiana, where five national championship banners sway at one end of the gym. This year, you'd better believe they were going to enjoy winning (at least a portion of) America's best league for the first time in a long time.
"You play the way you play in this league, you deserve to cut the nets down," Crean said. "There will be new nets up there tomorrow."
Except that tomorrow was already today.
The senior class of Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford and Derek Elston had already traipsed through the interview room at 1:20 a.m., still in their uniforms. They were emotionally flat after playing a game and then laughing, crying and speaking their way through the traditional Indiana Senior Night ceremony, then going through the usual lengthy postgame with their coach.
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Most of the fans stayed for the ceremony, because that's what they do here.
Fresh snow piled up outside Assembly Hall, and it was 11:30 p.m. ET, but it didn't matter. Not in the hoops holy land. Not at the culmination of the kind of season they've hungered for since the days before Bob Knight lost his touch and his mind.
So they sat back in their seats and listened to the emotional speeches from the players and the encouraging words from Crean. At least 80 percent of the 17,472 fans remained in the arena.
The ceremony went on. And on. Eventually it was midnight, and still the three seniors were talking. Still the fans sat there, applauding at the appropriate times – sometimes more dutifully than ardently. Perhaps they needed the buffer of the big picture to take away the sting of the moment.
Because on a night that was supposed to be part Big Ten coronation and part celebration of the arduous renaissance of Indiana basketball, the baseline emotion of the moment was disappointment. Losing as a solid favorite to a team the Hoosiers had beaten in Columbus by 13 points last month will have that effect.
The game was a rallying cry for the Buckeyes, a renewal of their credentials as a national contender in a season marked with routine losses to ranked opponents. It was a bitter defeat for the Hoosiers, who had so much within their reach with a victory.
Mostly, it was an affirmation of the savage reality of this Big Ten season: Nothing has been easy, and nothing will be decided until the last day of a two-month brawl. The league title race will go down to the weekend now, with five teams still striving for a piece of the crown.
Indiana (13-4 in the league) still can win it outright, but it must beat Michigan in Ann Arbor on Sunday for that to happen. If the Hoosiers fall, the Wolverines, Michigan State or Wisconsin (all 11-5) could tie them with two victories this week. (Michigan State plays Wisconsin on Thursday, so one of the two will be out of the race.) And Ohio State (12-5) needs only to win at home against Illinois to tie Indiana if Michigan helps out its archrival.
That's frustrating for Indiana, but fitting for the nation's toughest league. Winning streaks are fleeting. Nobody gets a leg up for long. Your weaknesses can and will be exposed.
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Ohio State had been exposed during the course of the grind. The Buckeyes were thumped at Wisconsin and Illinois, lost close ones at Michigan and Michigan State, and lost the one at home to Indiana. You didn't have to look far to find doubters of Thad Matta's team.
"We were knocked down and kicked to the ground, and they've picked themselves up and responded at a really high level," said Matta, whose team has the longest active winning streak in the league at four games.
Now it is Indiana that must pick itself up and respond. The Hoosiers have to earn a win Sunday to celebrate anew. The days of cutting down nets after a loss ended here early on a weird Wednesday morning.
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