The guy who beat No. 1 Kentucky with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer missed a free throw with 2.9 seconds left, then held his breath until Michigan’s desperation heave bounced high off the backboard to give No. 12 Indiana a 73-71 victory over the 16th-ranked Wolverines.
“He’s got a serious focus and intensity combined right now that he just continues to harness,” coach Tom Crean said, referring to Watford. “It really started to take shape back in April when we got back from Spring Break, and he hasn’t been the same player since. He’s lighting his own fire.”
The Hoosiers (14-1, 2-1 Big Ten) have won 11 straight at Assembly Hall and three times over ranked foes—their highest season total since beating four Top 25 teams in 2005-06. The 14 wins are already a season best for Crean, who in his fourth season in Bloomington.
And Watford has had a huge hand in the remarkable turnaround.
He hit the winner against the nation’s No. 1 team in mid-December, sealed Saturday’s victory over No. 2 Ohio State with two free throws in the closing seconds and had the most complete game of his three-year career against Michigan (12-3, 2-1).
Watford led the Hoosiers with 25 points and seven rebounds, but it wasn’t the numbers that jumped out. It was the way he did it.
Watford was 8 of 11 from the field, including 3 of 4 on 3-pointers, made 6 of 8 free throws and had four assists. Cody Zeller had 18 points on 8-of-10 shooting, and Verdell Jones scored six of his eight points in the critical closing stretch for Indiana.
It was impressive to their toughest critic.
“I thought you had to recruit for grit and you had to recruit someone with grit,” Crean said. “But I’ve learned with these guys that grit can be developed and grit can come out. Verdell Jones and Christian Watford are developing grit. And Cody Zeller came with it. They are playing with it.”
The Hoosiers had no choice if they wanted to keep their perfect home record intact Thursday.
Though the Hoosiers never trailed, it was a treacherous night.
Indiana led by as many as 15 points late in the first half and seemed poised for a blowout until the Wolverines rallied within seven points at halftime. Michigan trimmed the lead to 44-43 early in the second half, and finally tied the score at 46 when Evan Smotrycz connected on a 3-pointer.
Watford, of course, broke the tie with two free throws, and Zeller posted up for a layup to make it 50-46.
When the Hoosiers followed that with a 12-4 run that ended on Victor Oladipo’s baseline drive for a dunk, the Hoosiers led 65-55 with 7:20 to go, and it looked like Indiana would pull away.
Not so fast.
“I thought we really hung in there,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “This place gets rocking-and-rolling just like a lot of places in this league, and I thought we handled that. It came with our defense and we didn’t allow them a lot of second opportunities.”
Michigan took advantage, too.
Trey Burke and cheap jersey Tim Hardaway Jr. combined for all of the points in a 13-3 run, the last coming when Hardaway converted a turnover into a breakaway dunk that tied the score at 68 with 3:02 to play. It was only the second tie of the game.
Hardaway finished with 19 points, Jordan Morgan had 12 and Burke added 10.
But Indiana’s defense didn’t crack, not allowing another basket until 2.9 seconds were left in the game.
“I’m really proud of our team, I thought they played really hard and did some of the things we needed to do to win,” Beilein said. “But we needed a couple more possessions or have a few possessions back. It didn’t go our way.”
Instead, Jones broke the tie with two free throws, then hit a 15-foot jumper with 25 seconds left to give the Hoosiers a 72-68 lead.
Michigan finally ended its scoring drought with a 3 from Stu Douglass, then fouled Watford on the ensuing inbounds pass.
“I feel like I got to the free throw line a lot tonight and that helped me out in the second half,” Watford said.
After missing the first, Watford hit the second, and had to watch nervously as Zack Novak’s desperation heave headed toward the basket. It never had a chance.
“The bottom line is this team gritted it out again,” Crean said. “They have won 14 games 14 differensuper bowl jersey t ways with a lot of room for improvement, and I’m excited about them.”