EVANSTON, Ill. -- Jordan Hulls has pride. Never forget that. Indiana's senior guard might miss an occasional free throw or two, but target him at your own risk.
Northwestern risked it in a Sunday second-half strategy that, against a lesser player, might have worked. The Wildcats, coach Bill Carmody said, deliberately put Hulls on the free throw line in crunch time of what became Indiana's 67-59 victory.
Hulls didn't know it then.
He does now.
“That's fine,” he said. “Put me on the line.”
Hulls once set the Big Ten record for consecutive free throws made, at 58 straight, and if that accuracy has slipped, his determination hasn't. After he missed his first three free throws on Sunday, on top of the three he missed a few days earlier in the Wisconsin loss, Carmody saw vulnerability.
“We tried to foul Hulls at the end because he'd missed a few earlier and he'd missed three against Wisconsin,” Carmody said. “We decided to give it a shot.”
Hulls made the Wildcats pay. He hit four straight down the stretch -- en route to a 15-point effort -- to help the Hoosiers (16-2 overall, 4-1 in the Big Ten) hold off Northwestern.
“Free throws will be huge for us,” he said. “If we're going to win big, we can't miss those.”
Hulls is a career 86.8 percent free throw shooter. As a sophomore he shot 91.2 percent from the line. Last year he was at 89.9. But his 76.9 percent average this year is by far the worst of his career. Yes, this bothers the ultra-competitive Hulls, who has been known to work all hours of the day and night on his shooting, especially after a few misses. No one is harder on himself, and that's not always a good thing.
“I'm getting better about when I miss one,” he said. “When I miss three in a row, it gets to me.”
Hulls is trying to get to the line more than at any time in his career, in part because that's what coach Tom Crean wants from him, in part because teams often over-play him on defense, thus allowing him to drive and get fouled.
When he gets to the line, he wants teams to pay.
“I've put a lot of hard work in during the off-season, trying to make the right plays at the right time. Do whatever it takes to win.”
That was IU's bottom-line priority as it beat Northwestern to improve its Big Ten road record to 3-0 this season. It has won four of its last six road games.
“That's big,” Hulls said. “It's important we do the things we know we're capable of doing.”
It was especially satisfying, Hulls said, coming off last Tuesday's Assembly Hall loss to Wisconsin.
“You never like to lose,” he said. “We got back to the gym and wanted to get better every day. We did that.”
What IU did was get back near the top of the Big Ten. Its 4-1 conference record ties it with Michigan and Wisconsin for second, a half-game behind 5-1 Michigan State.
“I thought we responded in a huge way,” Crean said. “We had a long week and we've gotten better throughout all of it.
“To win our third straight on the road is a big deal. It's not easy to win in any league, and it's especially tough to win in this league.
The Hoosiers (16-2 overall) had a road edge given a big chunk of sell-out crowd of 8,117 wore IU red and that Northwestern had lost its last two home games, and four of its last six, at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
Still, the Wildcats (11-8, 2-4) are a unique challenge with their Princeton offense and 1-3-1 trapping defense. They were coming off a 14-point road win at No. 22 Illinois.
“They shoot extremely well,” Crean said.
Not during Sunday's first half. Northwestern shot 30.4 percent and fell behind 31-17 at halftime. It got as close as six points in the second half.
“I thought our guys really defended,” Crean said.
And then Crean defended his guys.
“One thing I had to remind them of, because they never read about it or hear about it, is that they are in the top-10 in field goal percentage defense and offense nationally. They needed to be reminded that when we do those things, we're pretty good.”
No Hoosier was better than forward Cody Zeller, who totaled 21 points and 13 rebounds.
“It seemed like he was everywhere,” Carmody said.
IU teammate Christian Watford added 14 points and six rebounds. Guard Victor Oladipo briefly left the game in the second half with a head or eye injury, but soon returned to finish with seven points, six rebounds and five assists.
Zeller, Watford and Oladipo paced the Hoosiers to a 36-24 rebound edge. They had 11 offensive rebounds and totaled 11 second-chance points.
“They punished us on the backboards,” Carmody said. “They were productive at getting offensive rebounds and scoring on second shots. We've got to get them off the glass. We played pretty good defense, but we have to finish the job.”
Indiana took charge early behind Watford, who once again got off to a strong start. The Hoosiers used a 9-0 run to build a 12-4 lead. They pushed ahead by as many as 15 points before settling for a 31-17 halftime lead.
IU shot 44.4 percent in the first half. Zeller had seven points and eight rebounds.
The Hoosiers' recent second-half struggles resurfaced. They fouled early and often. Their lead was cut to six. But a big three-pointer from Oladipo and a mid-range jumper from Will Sheehey (who broke a two-game scoreless streak with six points in 19 minutes), plus Hulls' free throws, helped IU hold on for the victory.
“We had to keep playing,” Zeller said about IU's strong down-the-stretch run. We'd been in a slump for a while. We've got a lot of guys who can score in a lot of different ways. It's good that we made a few big plays down the stretch.”