BLOOMINGTON — With eight losses in their past nine games going into Sunday afternoon's battle with Ohio State — and despite coach Archie Miller's crux that "they're all big" — an early February home game had become crucial for Indiana's postseason hopes.
Yet the Hoosiers were caught "flat-footed," as Romeo Langford described the start, and trailed 11-2 by the first media timeout with 15:22 on the clock.
IU eventually recovered, but the opening stretch, 16 second-half turnovers and a tie-breaking dunk by the Buckeyes' Andre Wesson with 20 seconds left were among the dooming factors in a fourth straight loss inside Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall. With its 55-52 victory, Ohio State (16-7, 6-6 Big Ten) moved up to seventh in the Big Ten, and Indiana (13-11, 4-9) fell into a tie for 10th with Rutgers.
"You're having to play high-level games in the middle of February that mean a lot, and our games do, they mean a lot," Miller said. "We had two opportunities this week to play terrific teams and came up short, and there's some things that obviously we have to get corrected at the beginning of the game to be able not to take those leads down, but we climbed back, and both games at halftime felt fine."
Indeed, IU clawed within 23-21 at the half despite shooting 34.8 percent overall (8-for-23) and 2-for-8 from 3-point range.
The Hoosiers tied it at 23 early in the second half before hitting a lethargic stretch. Kaleb Wesson muscled his way to the basket against Juwan Morgan to start a 7-0 run over a 1:20 span that had IU in catch-up mode once again.
Langford set up Morgan for his first and only points of the game to pull the Hoosiers within 34-28, but the Buckeyes' Kyle Young converted a layup that made Ohio State 6-for-7 from the field to start the second half.
IU's offense began to match the Buckeyes as the second half wore on.
Devonte Green, who had 10 points and three assists off the bench, set up De'Ron Davis off some dynamic penetration to get Indiana within 36-32 at the 13:30 mark.
Langford, who had 15 points and went 3-for-7 from 3-point range, had a smooth baseline drive and then showed off his quick first step from the top of the key to get to the bucket again.
But IU didn't get enough defensive stops to make a run during that stretch of improved offense. Morgan, who had a game-high 14 rebounds, couldn't secure a key defensive rebound after a Luther Muhammad missed shot. Andre Wesson delivered punishment after one of the 10 offensive rebounds for Ohio State with a 3-pointer that put his team back up nine, 47-38.
"Being able to finish the game comes down to execution. It comes down to getting quality shots, being able to do that, and then you've got to find a way to rebound the ball at times as well. That was a big deal in tonight's game was just the rebound, the ability to rebound the ball," Miller said. "So many, five to seven, 50-50 balls, we have our hands on it and they take it from us. We have two guys go up for it, and it goes out of bounds. Those are just back-breakers."
But, again, IU recovered. This time, with a 14-2 run sparked by two Langford 3-pointers that were sandwiched around a Green 3 on successive possessions.
Green hit another triple — this one from 25 feet out — to put IU ahead 52-49 with 1:46 to play.
IU followed up with a solid defensive possession, but C.J. Jackson wasn't to be outdone. The senior guard connected from 25 feet with one second on the shot clock to tie it at 52.
IU's 21st turnover came on its biggest possession of the game. Morgan's pass into Langford was knocked away and stolen by Andre Wesson.
"Coach drew a play up for me to get a post duck-in. They just made a hard play on the ball," Langford said.
Ohio State executed its ensuing possession, creating space for Wesson to cut to open space. Walker found him, and Langford was a split-second late to help.
"They slid him out, and obviously our help side defense needed to be over a little earlier to make either a harder play on the ball, foul him or block the shot, and it just — he made a good play," Miller said. "They slipped him out. Our rotation was there. I thought Romeo had a chance to make maybe a blocked shot, but he got it off the glass quickly."
Green's contested look from deep 3-point range with three seconds left could have tied it, but it missed.
That was the finish, but the start to both halves stuck out.
"We're just flat-footed, and we let the other team hit us first before hitting them, and then we've got to play catch-up for the rest of the game," Langford said. "It's been a common theme throughout the season, us starting off slow, but we're still working every day to get better (and) be better than we were the last game."
IU has the week to prepare for Minnesota on Saturday on the road.