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Indiana survives fast start, furious finish

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Tipoff: Wisconsin at Indiana, 9 p.m. Tuesday
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Hoosiers hold off charging Minnesota

Sunday, January 13, 2013 - 5:52 am

BLOOMINGTON -- A win is a win. That's the Indiana mantra in the aftermath of blowout victory turned cliffhanger.

What began as a Saturday afternoon national statement for Cream 'n Crimson dominance morphed into near disaster.

Yes, the No. 5 Hoosiers beat No.8 Minnesota 88-81, but there were enough second-half teaching points, even in Hoosier friendly Assembly Hall, to last the rest of the season.

“It's a good win for us,” guard Yogi Ferrell said, “but we have to be better.”

Indiana spent the first 20 minutes building a 23-point lead and the final 20 nearly blowing it. Minnesota closed within three in the final 19 seconds before a pair of Jordan Hulls' free throws -- after three straight misses -- clinched it.

“We have to do a better job of playing a full 40-minute game,” Hulls said. “We played really well in the first half. They came back. We knew they were going to come back. They're a good team.

“We have to do a better job of communicating on defense and moving the ball on offense. Do what we did best in the first half.

“The second half, we can't accept that. We have to play a lot better.”

In so many ways the Hoosiers were better. They got 20 points from Victor Oladipo, 19 from Hulls, 18 from Cody Zeller, 15 (along with nine rebounds) from Christian Watford, and 13 points and eight assists in a game-high 37 minutes from Ferrell.

IU improved to 3-0 in Big Ten play to join Michigan and Wisconsin atop the league standings. The Hoosiers (15-1) host surging Wisconsin (12-4) on Tuesday.

For that reason, the Hoosiers appreciated the victory even if they weren't thrilled about how it happened.

“A win is a win in this conference,” Zeller said. “They're tough to come by. We'll take it.”

Taking started with a rebound emphasis that never eased up. IU won the board battle 36-34 in part because Zeller did all he could to keep Minnesota double-double threat Trevor Mbakwe under control. Mbakwe still finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds.

“Rebounding was a big key for us,” Zeller said. “We had to have five guys rebounding. I was trying to get Mbakwe out of it, even if I don't get the rebound. He's such a good rebounder.”

Mbakwe was the power in the Gophers' 11-game winning streak that propelled them to a 3-0 Big Ten start, 15-1 overall. The explosiveness came from guard Andre Hollins, who had a game-high 25 points and four steals.

It wasn't enough.

“Minnesota is every bit as good as we thought they were,” coach Tom Crean said. “It's a victory we earned, but there's no question, with a long season, we've got to get better.”

In a 10-minute first-half span, IU turned the nation's No. 8 team into Bryant. It hit three-pointers all over the court (six in a seven-minute burst). It defended the Gophers into offensive irrelevance. Oladipo refused to miss. Hulls did so reluctantly.

Case in point:

Hulls hit a three-pointer; Oladipo had a steal and layup; Hulls hit another three-pointer. That was part of an 18-2 run that boosted the Hoosiers to that 52-29 halftime lead.

The game seemed to be over.

It wasn't.

Minnesota rocked IU to start the second half. Its 14-4 run, aided by four IU turnovers, set a tone. So did the Hoosiers' stumble-bumble play that included one assist and 11 turnovers.

“It was more on us,” Ferrell said. “We weren't looking inside enough. We lost that edge.”

The lost edge included 1-for-8 three-point shooting after a 7-for-11 first-half burst. Overall IU shot just 28.6 percent in the second half.

The Gophers capitalized to close the gap. Oladipo's foul on a missed Austin Hollins' three-pointer helped Minnesota close to within eight points as the clock ticked under two minutes. An Andre Hollins' three-pointer made it a seven-point game with 50.5 seconds left. Minnesota got within four with 32.2 seconds left, within three with 18 seconds left.

Hulls missed three straight crunch time free throws, but Zeller hustled to tip the last miss back to Hulls. He was fouled and hit both free throws to clinch the victory and ensure the Assembly Hall mystique continued. IU is 11-0 at home this season and has won 29 of its last 30 home games over the past two seasons.

That meant little to Minnesota coach Tubby Smith, who has built a title contender in his sixth season.

“I was disappointed in our first half,” he said. “We weren't aggressive. Indiana was much more aggressive both offensively and defensively, and it showed.

“I was proud of the way we hung in there and didn't give up, didn't give in. We did the things to give ourselves a chance. We didn't embarrass ourselves by folding the tent.”

Indiana avoided an embarrassing meltdown. In the end, Hulls said, it's defense producing offense that matters most.

“That's what we have to do to keep on winning.”