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TOM DAVIS: ‘Improved’ defense will allow Fort Wayne to build upon another special opportunity

Indiana's Devonte Green (11) goes to the basket against Fort Wayne's Xzavier Taylor (22) during a game Monday in Bloomington. (By The Associated Press)
Indiana's Juwan Morgan (13) plays against Fort Wayne defenders Jax Levitch (5) and Dylan Carl during a game Monday in Bloomington. (By The Associated Press)
Indiana men's basketball coach Archie Davis leaves the court after a loss to Fort Wayne in a game Monday in Bloomington. (By The Associated Press)
Indiana's Robert Johnson (4) goes to the basket against Fort Wayne's Dylan Carl (11) during a game Monday in Bloomington. (By The Associated Press)
Indiana's De'Ron Davis (20) swats the ball from Fort Wayne's Bryson Scott (1) during a game, Monday in Bloomington. (By The Associated Press)

BLOOMINGTON – It isn’t very often that you get to build upon a life-altering moment twice. Heck, a lot of people don’t get to do it once. But in the case of the Fort Wayne men’s basketball program, the Hoop Gods have looked down upon it and blessed it again.

For the second consecutive season, Fort Wayne beat state-power Indiana, this time 92-72 Monday at Assembly Hall in front of 11,424 stunned fans, and the victory, once again, has catapulted the Mastodons into the national awareness among college basketball fans.

“Give Fort Wayne a lot of credit,” first-year Indiana coach Archie Miller said afterward. “They executed their game plan on both ends of the floor really well. It wasn’t close in terms of the approach coming out of halftime.”

“It wasn’t close.”

The coach got that right.

Unlike last year’s overtime game, this was a beatdown of epic proportions.

The Mastodons abused the Hoosiers offensively by sinking a mesmerizing 17 3-pointers, while Indiana wilted by the second over the final 20 minutes.

“For 40 minutes,” Fort Wayne coach Jon Coffman said, “we stuck with being us.”

What “being us” means for the Mastodons is playing without fear and being aggressive at the offensive end almost to a reckless degree.

“Those guys,” Miller said of Fort Wayne, “that’s how they play. They play fast. They play downhill.”

“They’ve got a spread floor most of the time, where they have some guys that can really shoot the ball.”

Boy, do they.

Fort Wayne didn’t have one or two guys stroking it from afar, six different players made a 3-pointer, including a combined 14 from the trio of Kason Harrell, Dylan Carl and John Konchar.

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But as fun as it has been to watch Fort Wayne play in recent years, that euphoria has often led to angst because its focus at one end has come at the expense of the other. However, this team may be different.

The Mastodon victory over Indiana a year ago was shocking, but not any more so than watching a very talented Fort Wayne team finish sixth in the Summit League three months later.

As it turned out, a team can score its way to an attention-grabbing upset on a given night (even against the nation’s No.3-ranked squad), but if it wants to compete for anything serious, it better defend well.

“We’ve really improved our defense,” Coffman said, “in terms of putting guys into crowds. We knew that we could defend (Indiana), it was just a matter of getting the stop and then finishing the play.”

From a statistical standpoint, you’ll have to take Coffman’s word on his team’s development defensively.

Coming into Monday’s game, the Mastodon opponents were shooting just as well (45 percent) as Fort Wayne, and Coffman’s guys were a mediocre 5-5 against NCAA Division I competition. But against Indiana, that improvement was evident.

The Hoosiers threw the ball away 18 times and in the second half, Fort Wayne held Miller’s team to a paltry 34 percent shooting.

“It was the same thing that we were doing in the first half,” Coffman said of his defensive strategy. “It was about finishing plays.”

Indiana “finished” more plays than the Mastodons, as they outrebounded Fort Wayne 46-31 (including grabbing 20 offensive boards). However, the Mastodons contested the 3-point line (Indiana missed 20 of its 24 attempts) and it somewhat contained the reigning Big Ten Player of the Week (Hoosier forward Juwan Morgan), who scored just 14 points (six below his recent average of 20-plus over a five game stretch).

Fort Wayne won’t be able to shoot itself to success every night moving forward, however, bringing defensive focus and effort is a possibility in every practice and every game, and it will have to be if this program wants to achieve something special for more than just a given night.

A year ago, Fort Wayne had the opportunity of a basketball lifetime to build upon an historic win, but it didn’t. The Mastodons have to continue to get defensive with their play and prevent history from repeating itself.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Tom Davis at Tdavis@news-sentinel.com.

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