DAYTON, Ohio – Indiana’s season, the one that’s supposed to end with confetti falling and nets coming down, was minutes from ending in shock and disappointment.
The Hoosiers were on the brink.
As the clock ticked down, coach Tom Crean wouldn’t allow himself to thing about defeat, so his mind wandered elsewhere.
“That’s when you just pray,” he said.
Victor Oladipo hit a 3-pointer with 14 seconds remaining and the top-seeded Hoosiers, unable to stop Temple star Khalif Wyatt for most of the game, shut down Owls star Khalif Wyatt in the final three minutes for a 58-52 win on Sunday in the East Regional.
Trailing by four with 2:56 left, the Hoosiers (29-6) closed with a 10-0 run and advanced to the round of 16 for the second straight year. After stopping to tell Temple’s players they’re as good as any Big Ten team, Crean, his red tie askew and his hair messed, overcome by yet another emotion.
“That,” he said, “was relief.”
Indiana, with its sights set on a sixth national title, will play No. 4 seed Syracuse in the regional semifinals on Thursday in Washington, a rematch of the classic 1987 title game won by the Hoosiers.
Wyatt scored 31 points to lead the Owls (24-10), who for 37 minutes gave one of tournament’s three remaining No. 1 seeds all it could handle before collapsing when it mattered most.
“We competed really hard,” Wyatt said. “We battled. A couple plays here and there, we win. It was just a tough battled game, and they came out on top.”
Oladipo, who drew the assignment of chasing Wyatt around the floor and needed plenty of help from his teammates, scored 16 and Cody Zeller added 15 for the Hoosiers, lucky to leave Dayton with their national title hopes intact after being scared silly by the Owls.
“If they were in our league, they’d be fighting for a championship too,” Crean said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. They’re that good.”
After Oladipo’s long 3 put the Hoosiers up 56-52, Indiana had to buckle down on Wyatt, the Atlantic 10’s Player of the Year.
Wyatt was way off with a 3-pointer from the right wing with six seconds left and Indiana’s Christian Watford grabbed the rebound and was fouled.
With his hands on his hips, Wyatt walked dejectedly up the floor as Dayton Arena rocked and the senior pounded his chest.
The Hoosiers’ heartbeats finally slowed. On Saturday, Gonzaga became the first top seed to be knocked off and, until Wyatt’s miss, Indiana was in danger of zigging with the Zags.
Instead, Indiana will pack up and head to the nation’s capital and a homecoming for Oladipo, who is from Upper Marlboro, Md. The junior will get to play in front of family and friends. Most importantly, he’ll get to play.
“It’s a great feeling,” Oladipo said. “I’m just glad that we’re going.”
After Watford, who made a huge block on Anthony Lee with Indiana trailing 52-50, made his two free throws to seal the win, the red-and-white-clad Indiana faithful relaxed and celebrated much the way Big Ten brethren Ohio State did earlier when Aaron Craft’s 3-pointer in the final second beat Iowa State and pushed the Buckeyes ahead in the West Regional.
Wyatt nearly turned this tournament into his national coming-out party. Despite playing with an injured left thumb, Wyatt, who also scored 31 in the opener against North Carolina State, gave the Hoosiers fits. With the score tied at 52-all, he broke free from Oladipo, but missed a 3-pointer and Indiana got the rebound.
Oladipo was fouled, and during a stop in action, Wyatt stared at the ball at his feet and yelled in frustration.
Oladipo split a pair of free throws, but he was able to keep the ball from Wyatt on Temple’s next trip, which ended when Rhalir Hollis-Jefferson’s contested shot missed everything.
Then, with Indiana needing a score to open some breathing room, Oladipo hit a shot Hoosier fans will add to the pantheon of big ones by IU players.
“I was just open, and I shot it,” Oladipo said, downplaying his heroics.
Indiana senior Jordan Hulls, who has played in more games for the Hoosiers than any other player, returned in the second half with a protective wrap on an injured right shoulder. He knocked down a 3 with 8:49 left to pull the Hoosiers within 41-40 and give Indiana’s fans something to do other than complain about the officiating.
Scoring from inside and out, and looking into the crowd after every made shot, Wyatt had 20 points in the first half. And although he missed a 3-pointer in the final second, the senior clapped his hands and let out a high-pitched “whoooop” as he headed to the locker room with the Owls leading 29-26.
The three-point deficit at the break matched Indiana’s largest this season, and the Hoosiers hardly looked like themselves for much of the opening 20 minutes.
But in the second half, Indiana used Oladipo, Remy Abell, Sheehey and even Zelller on Wyatt, who found it much more difficult to get to the basket — or even an unobstructed look at it.
“It was fun while it lasted,” he said.
The Hoosiers’ good times roll on.
Kentucky had barely finished cutting down the nets as national champions last year in New Orleans, when Indiana, which lost to the Wildcats in the tournament, were labeled as the team to beat in 2013. They embraced the higher expectations, and led by seniors Hulls and Watford — who were around when IU bottomed out amid scandal — the Hoosiers spent most of this season at or near the top of the AP Top 25.
Indiana took a few lumps in the brutal Big Ten, but handed out just as many on won its first regular-season conference title since 1993.
Nice, but not close to the ultimate goal — a national championship.
It’s still in front of the Hoosiers.
“We’re on a mission,” Oladipo said.