INDIANAPOLIS -- Indiana dazzled its fans with a first half to remember Saturday. Then the fifth-ranked Hoosiers had to survive a forgettable finish.
The nation's highest scoring team produced only seven points in the final 4½ minutes Saturday -- barely enough to hold off No. 8 Minnesota's furious closing flurry and hang on for an 88-81 victory.
On paper, it will go down as just another win. In the film room, it will look like something very different to the Hoosiers.
"A year ago, we'd have been ecstatic with that victory and I want them to enjoy it, but we have different expectation levels now," coach Tom Crean said. "We have a lot of room for improvement. Where it takes the next step is when players understand they can play better, and I think they do."
Inside Assembly Hall, the consensus opinion was simple: It never should have been this close.
And there was plenty to critique.
Victor Oladipo scored 20 points and had six rebounds but fouled out after fouling a 3-point shooter for the third time in the game. Jordan Hulls knocked down four 3s, finished with 19 points and four rebounds but had two turnovers and missed three free throws during Minnesota's closing run. Cody Zeller had 18 points, six rebounds and three blocks, and the Hoosiers vaunted bench went 0 for 8 from the field and finished with only three points.
The mistakes allowed Minnesota (15-2, 3-1 Big Ten) to trim a 23-point halftime lead to 13 early in the second half and a 15-point deficit to three with 19 seconds to go.
"We had a good first half, but we've got to come out with the same energy in the second half," Zeller said. "I thought the energy dropped off a little bit, but we'll be all right. A win's a win in this conference."
It certainly beats the alternative.
The Hoosiers (15-1, 3-0) have now won six straight, 18 in a row at Assembly Hall and beat a top-15 foe for the fifth time in 13 months as all five starters scored in double figures.
In contrast, Minnesota's 11-game winning streak came to an end with an odd twist. The Gophers' two losses this season have both come to No. 5-ranked teams (Duke and Indiana) and the only teams to hold the No.-1 ranking this season.
"Indiana's a pretty good team and we knew it was going to be a battle. The things we knew we had to do were take care of the basketball and guard their 3s and we did none of it in the first half," coach Tubby Smith said. "We're disappointed we didn't win the game because if we put together two halves, we have a chance to compete."
All five Gophers starters also reached double figures.
But the poor start -- a half in which three Hoosiers scored 10 or more points and Indiana made seven 3s, forced 12 turnovers and had seven steals -- proved too much for Minnesota to overcome.
Hulls got the first of the two key runs started with Indiana's first 3 of the game midway through the first half. Oladipo followed that with a steal and layup, and when the spurt ended with 5:54 left, Hulls and Oladipo had combined for 16 points in an 18-2 run that made it 34-17. The Hoosiers closed the first half on a 12-2 run, too, extending the margin to 52-29 at the half.
When Smith finally got some extended time to talk to his players, things changed.
"I thought we did the things to help us give ourselves a chance, didn't embarrass ourselves by folding the tent and heading home," Smith said of the second half. "We've got a very competitive group of guys and that's what I expected from them in the second half."
It didn't take long to see a difference.
Joe Coleman opened the half with a three-point play, sending Minnesota on a 14-4 run that cut the deficit to 56-43.
Minnesota rallied again late, cutting Indiana's 77-62 lead with 4:37 to go down to 84-81 when Andre Hollins made two free throws with 19 seconds left. The groans could be heard throughout Assembly Hall, especially when Hulls missed two free throws on the ensuing possession.
Had the Gophers gotten the rebound, they would have had a chance to tie the score.
Instead, Hulls grabbed the rebound, drew another foul and made two free throws to make it a two-possession game.
"I feel good, but I know there's a lot of stuff we need to work on," Oladipo said. "We've got to see what we did in the second half and figure out what we did wrong and correct it because we've got some really good teams coming up."
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