BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Thomas Bryant could, at last, speak his mind.
Payback against North Carolina had arrived after nine months of stewing, and if it lacked NCAA tourney implications, well, let somebody else worry about that.
Indiana had just rocked the No. 3 and previously unbeaten Tar Heels 76-67 Wednesday night and for Bryant, the Hoosiers’ feel-the-passion center, perspective trumped elation.
“It means a lot,” he said. “We’ve taken a step forward. We’re getting better each day. Today we proved that.”
With the Assembly Hall advantage at full power (21 straight wins and counting), No. 13 IU (5-1) regained the luster lost from last week’s Fort Wayne upset. It is now 2-0 against top-five teams after previously beating No. 2 Kansas in the season opener in Hawaii. It has beaten six top-three opponents since the 2011-12 season, tied with Duke for the most in the country. It also has won its last 10 home games against ranked teams.
“Our guys are spent,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said. “This is a game where they left every bit of it out there.”
This culminated an ultra-hyped night that included the return of IU’s 1981 national title team and the appearance of ex-Hoosier and Chicago Cubs star Kyle Schwarber.
“You feel the energy before you step on the floor for pre-game warms,” Bryant said. “You feel it the day before. You want to play your best in front of the greatest fans in college basketball.”
Brian Spurlock | USA TODAY Sports Images
James Blackmon (1) sparked the Hoosiers early on Wednesday.
IU hasn’t lost a home game since March 2015. It needs two more wins to break into the top five home winning streaks in school history. The program record is 50 straight from 1991-1995.
“Our fans are great in bringing that energy,” guard James Blackmon said, “but we always have to know where the energy starts. If we don’t bring it, it can be hard to get that energy.”
Three home games against lightweights SIU-Edwardsville, Southeast Missouri State and Houston Baptist are next before the Hoosiers face their next real challenge — No. 18 Butler (6-0) in Indianapolis as part of the Crossroads Classic.
As for the home court mystique, Crean said, “The energy is so high. It brings a lot of confidence. On a night like tonight, it never gets quiet.
“Students were sleeping across the street last night. There were thousands of them out here this morning. I was worried about their energy. Are they going to have enough?
“This is a great place to play. There’s a lot of pride here, but we have to play well. We have to defend and put the ball in the basket. But it helps build confidence all the way around.”
RANKINGS: AP Top 25
The Hoosiers rocked North Carolina (7-1) from the opening tip. They spread the court, delivered blows and took control. It held a team that came in averaging 93 points to a season low. The Tar Heels, a 52 percent shooting team, managed just 39.3 percent, also a season low.
“It all started with the mindset we started with from the tip,” guard Robert Johnson said. “We were aggressive on both sides of the glass.”
He got no argument from North Carolina coach Roy Williams.
“We were not ready to play,” he said. “The first half was about as ugly as it could be. There were so many mistakes. Everything went wrong.
“They were far more aggressive, quicker, more competitive. They challenged us, and we backed up.”
Blackmon, IU’s leading scorer, started, as everyone knew he would. Sitting him out for Mississippi Valley State was a smart precaution after he banged his knee last week against Fort Wayne.
The Hoosiers did not need him for the Delta Devils.
They did for the Tar Heels, however, and he delivered early with eight fast points, including a pair of 3-pointers, as IU surged to first-half leads as large as 17. He finished with 14 points, nine rebounds and three assists in 28 minutes.
“There was no question I was going to play,” he said. “I was just a little bruised, banged up from that game. I was rested and felt really good. I was ready to go.”
IU had five players score in double figures, led by forward OG Anunoby’s 16 points. However, he suffered an apparent high ankle sprain while dunking late in the game. Crean said Anunoby is being evaluated.
“We’ll see. His spirits are good.”
North Carolina’s front-court dominance had terrorized its first seven opponents, but these Hoosiers, especially in Assembly Hall, were made of tougher stuff. They ran and rebounded and shot their way to a 41-29 halftime edge.
And then the game really began.
North Carolina, having absorbed the full fury of a rocking Assembly Hall, began to close the gap.
In five minutes, the lead was down to eight points. With five minutes left, North Carolina closed within four before the Hoosiers pulled away.
“I didn’t get too uptight,” Crean said about the Tar Heels rally. “Our confidence was good. I was just worried about our wind. We made timely baskets.”
This article is written by Pete DiPrimio from The News-Sentinel and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network.