BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Here it was, at last.
Here was the moment Indiana fans envisioned for nearly nine months, since Romeo Langford stood in a crowded high school gymnasium and sent an entire, glory-starved state into ecstasy by putting an Indiana hat atop his blonde curls and committing to the Hoosiers. Here was the most celebrated in-state player in years slicing assertively from the top of the key to the rim, rising and coolly banking in a shot in the final second to win a game and blow the roof off Assembly Hall.
"Finally," Langford said, with a small smile.
It has been a long time coming. Too long, really. Romeo's hero turn isn't likely to save this star-crossed Indiana season, not unless the Hoosiers can somehow turn a 75-73, double-overtime upset of Wisconsin into a March charge for the ages.
No, as exciting as this moment was, it likely augurs nothing. It came after a five-game losing streak and a 54-day span between home victories — an unconscionable drought at a basketball blueblood. It came in front of acres of empty seats, with the upper deck on one side of Assembly Hall almost completely deserted. (Attendance was listed as a sellout crowd of 17,222, but actual butts in seats were many thousands fewer.)
This win is a little lipstick on a pig. It merely makes Indiana 14-14 overall, 5-12 in the Big Ten, languishing in a tie for 11th. The only way the Hoosiers are going to the NCAA tournament is if they win the Big Ten tourney, and that would be a miracle run the likes of which are rarely seen to their full completion in college basketball.
This was about as far as coach Archie Miller was willing to go in judging what beating the No. 19 Badgers could mean: "We'll see."
A guarded reaction is a wise reaction.
But for a flash, for a thrilling few seconds at the end of an excruciating night of bungling and misfiring— my god, Wisconsin, that second overtime was repugnant — the dream was real. An Indiana team that has excelled in recent weeks at losing the close ones found a way to win. And Langford, who has had his chances to hit defining shots but missed, got one to go.
On other occasions, the 6-foot-6 wing pulled up and settled for perimeter shots. That hasn't been a winning strategy for a guy shooting 27 percent from 3-point range. Langford has had a good freshman season, averaging 17 points per game, sixth-most in the Big Ten, but it hasn't been a transformative season — for anyone.
Langford has not transformed Indiana. Nor has he transformed himself into a likely top-five NBA draft pick when he assuredly leaves school this spring.
Despite the lack of Romeo-Indiana magic, there is not a lack of try in the current Hoosiers. They have lost a lot, but not completely cratered. They rose up for a wildly improbable win at Michigan State at the start of this month, then finished it with this victory, and in between there were at least honest efforts against Iowa twice, Purdue and Ohio State.
"It's hard," Miller said. "Negativity, losing, all that stuff isn't fun. But I think our guys have taken a good approach."
The approach: The only way to break out of a negative cycle is to keep trying. And Indiana certainly tried hard against Wisconsin — and kept trying hard, even after blowing a 13-point second-half lead in seemingly an eye blink.
"We didn't panic and just stayed with it," Langford said.
The Badgers certainly did their part to keep Indiana alive. This is how they began the second overtime: missed jump shot, two missed free throws, missed layup, two more missed free throws, an airball 3-pointer and another missed free throw before the second one finally fell. Wisconsin didn't make a single field goal in the final five-minute period.
This, really, is the way Wisconsin has played all month: seven February games, seven single-digit outcomes. That's life as a rugged defensive team with severe offensive liabilities.
Guard Brad Davison was 1-for-11 Tuesday night, and has now made just eight of his last 32 three-pointers. Nate Reuvers, a putative inside-outside threat, was ineffective from both locales. And then there is the ongoing free-throw angst of leading scorer Ethan Happ, who hasn't made more than 50 percent of his foul shots in a game since Jan. 23.
Happ is 17 of 50 from the line his last nine games. And while 5-of-10 against Indiana could be considered progress, it's not good and he clearly seemed reticent at times to draw contact and get to the line. Happ has never been a great foul shooter in four years at Wisconsin, but he's never been this bad.
Thus all of Wisconsin's foibles gave Indiana a chance to get well. Specifically, it gave Romeo Langford a chance to be The Man everyone hoped he would be.
When he got the ball in the final seconds, he put his head down. Fellow freshman Rob Phinisee briefly ran interference at the top of the key, and Wisconsin defender Khalil Iverson inexplicably let Langford have his right hand and drive the same direction he'd gone all night.
"Their guy flinched just a quick second," Miller said. "And the minute he did that, I knew Romeo's shoulder was going to get by him, just a matter of whether he was going to make it or not."
He made it. And Indiana rejoiced. It was a moment too long in coming, but it came just the same.
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