Victor Oladipo (left) and Christian Watford's (right) clutch play against Temple propelled Indiana to the Sweet 16. (Jason Miller/Getty)
DAYTON, Ohio -- A crucial swat begat the crucial shot, but the roots of top-seeded Indiana's late escape against gritty Temple here this evening were planted two Sundays ago in Ann Arbor, Mich.
That Sunday afternoon, in the buzzing crucible of Crisler Arena, with the Wolverines about to stake their claim to a share of the Big Ten regular-season crown, the Hoosiers scored the final six points in the final 52 seconds to walk out victorious. They executed impeccably down the stretch, and aided by some late-game gaffes from the Wolverines, swiped the win and the league title.
The time pressure wasn't as urgent today against the Owls, but the favored Hoosiers, who had trailed the entire second half, found themselves down by four with just over three minutes remaining and hadn't found a way all game to handle Temple scoring ace Khalif Wyatt, who poured in 31 points. The Hoosiers, in part, relied on lessons reinforced at Michigan to buckle down and grab the victory.
"It's just what we've been doing all year," said senior forward Christian Watford. "We knew the game wasn't over. ... [The Michigan game] helps us a lot. You can never have enough experience at this time of the year."
The endgame may have played out differently had Watford not stamped himself into Indiana lore again with a sensational block of an Anthony Lee dunk attempt with 2:18 remaining. Watford's three-pointer to topple Kentucky at the buzzer at Assembly Hall last year stands as a major "we're back!" moment for the Hoosiers program, but his rejection of Lee at the rim and subsequent rebound of the putback miss may be a more talked-about play, given the NCAA tournament setting. That was the closest the Owls came to scoring the rest of the way, as the Hoosiers scored the last 10 points of the game to win by six.
Watford's versatility helped bolster the Hoosiers' defense down the stretch when Temple often pulled Wyatt well away from the action, dragging Indiana stopper Victor Oladipo with him. That created a number of four-on-four scenarios, and Indiana won the majority of them.
"I think Christian Watford's defense was epic for us," head coach Tom Crean said. "It really was, because he had to do a lot of different things. And the block, it's great that he's going to get some credit for a big-time defensive play, because he's a really good defensive player. We don't go to the Sweet 16 last year without his defense."
They might not have made this year's Sweet 16 without it, either, but the outcome remained very much in doubt until the final 15 seconds, when Oladipo drilled a back-breaking three that put Indiana up by four. Oladipo's dramatic offensive improvement is another major reason why Indiana has been so highly regarded and dangerous this season, and teammates and coaches alike in the postgame feted Oladipo for the substantial work he's put in to develop on that end.
A couple of plays and a couple of stops made the difference as Indiana's late-game execution saved them again. Looking still a bit stressed but happy to be advancing, Crean stood in the concourse of UD Arena and admitted the staff broached the Michigan game in a huddle during a late Temple timeout. He said the Hoosiers had spent yesterday's walkthrough mostly working on situational basketball and the experience garnered earlier this month was a factor in his team's survival.
"We reference [the Michigan win], and it felt like that to me," Crean said. "Our guys, they had tremendous poise under pressure at Michigan. They never panicked. It was the same situation."