The loudest noise I have ever heard didn’t start at the front row of a concert or standing under a jet engine. It came when a slow white guy tipped in a missed shot to beat a top 25 team.
That slow white guy was Indiana junior Tom Pritchard and that top 25 team was Illinois. The time: around 11 pm Thursday night. The place: the real Assembly Hall in Bloomington.
Let’s be honest on a couple points here. First of all, from the first shot, everybody knew this was Jordan Hulls’ game. The most important player for the Hoosiers last night was Jeremiah Rivers, but the guy who defined “clutch” last night was Jordan Hulls. He set the tone by nailing the first shot of the game and drove the point home by hitting two huge free throws in the final seconds.
Secondly: Tom Pritchard might be the most disliked player in the IU student section. He’s big, slow and doesn’t know how to set a legal screen (I suppose that can be said for all the IU big men). But he does have his moments of genius. Two of them were in the final 50 seconds of that game last night. I’ll get to Pritch later.
Prior to the game, standing in line for seats in the general admission section of Assembly Hall, one could see a very eclectic array of Hoosier faithful. People in very odd costumes come to show off their support; as long as they’re wearing red, I suppose it doesn’t matter what they’re wearing.
A number of students also bring signs so they can support their team while trying to get on TV as well. One stood out to me: SHOOT THE BALL, JORDY. It was exactly what I have wanted all year and it’s what Nathan Hart, men’s basketball columnist for the Indiana Daily Student has also been urging. Hulls obeyed the sign and it paid off; he went 4-for-5 from behind the arc with 18 points overall.
When the ball was in his hands last night, everyone knew something good was about to happen. When he spun away from Tisdale and put up a mid-range jumper with around 45 seconds left to take a one-point lead, we all knew it was going in.
I had already reared back for a fist-pump when the ball spun off the back of the rim and went up for grabs. It was between Indiana’s Christian Watford and Illinois’ Jereme Richmond for the rebound, and IU’s leading scorer managed to tip it off the backboard, right into the hands of Pritch, who came out of nowhere.
Instead of grabbing the rebound and going up strong immediately, he chose to simply slap the ball back like he was trying to eliminate someone in a game of 21. It bounced off the front rim and then dropped through the hoop.
The sound was probably heard all the way in Champaign, at the other Assembly Hall.
What made the moment even sweeter was the fact that a girl behind me had been severely berating Pritchard all night. Just a couple of possessions earlier, on a play where Pritch made a hustle play that didn’t work out (but wasn’t his fault), the girl screamed mercilessly, yelling that he Crean should pull him, that he “was wearing an orange jersey,” of course referring to the jerseys of IU’s opponent.
Honestly, all I heard when the ball went in was a sonic blast from everywhere around me, so I have no idea how she responded.
Not only did he make a great play to score, Pritch then bore down on defense. The concentration on his face was evident as he played tight defense on Tisdale during what would prove to be Illinois’ penultimate possession. Without committing a foul—which has been an issue for the Hoosiers this year—Pritch got right up against Tisdale, which eventually led to an ugly turnover for the Illini.
The rest, as they say, is history. Hulls ends up nailing two clutch free throws, Brandon Paul misses the shot at the buzzer, Crean hugs his family, students rush the court and Crean shows up again in the South Lobby of Assembly Hall amongst hundreds of adoring fans.
When I got to go onto the court before the game and meet Gus Johnson, I foolishly assumed that would be the highlight of my night. As I was raised a Michigan fan, I then assumed the Wolverines’ victory over the struggling Spartans would be the biggest win of the night. Dumb.
I should have known that regardless of the outcome of the game, watching a Big Ten basketball game from the second row in Assembly Hall is always going to be an unforgettable experience.
I had no idea how memorable that night would truly become. From the moment the snow began to fall outside to the moment I found my way onto the court and literally nearly collided with an exuberant Tom Crean, I was involved in something much bigger than I expected.
It’s Indiana basketball. And it’s on its way back.