TERRE HAUTE —
It’s too bad you can’t synthesize things in life down to their best moments.
How great would it be to have a DVR where you could fast-forward through all of life’s struggles and hardship and just play the good parts?
If such a wondrous contraption existed, Indiana State’s men’s basketball team would no doubt rewind and replay the final minute of its 65-64 victory over Iona on Saturday on an endless loop.
The Sycamores showed what they were made of in the final minute. These were the Sycamores that had scrapped their way to first-place in the Missouri Valley Conference.
The final 60 seconds featured textbook execution on both ends of the floor. The Sycamores were locked in, they were focused, they were aggressive (blocked shots by both Dawon Cummings and Just in Gant) and smart, and though bad fortune via a bail-out foul call nearly spoiled it, they got the job done.
It was a joy to watch, but it was maddening too, because that last minute spurt also made you wonder why ISU – who led by 10 at one point in the second half and who seemingly had control of the game at other times – had to fight so hard to recover its mojo to begin with?
Physical effort is rarely an issue. It almost never is. ISU rarely gets out-muscled by anyone and only rarely gets out-hustled. ISU played defense hard for all 40 minutes against Iona on Saturday. Par for the course.
It’s the mental edge that’s fleeting. It’s a train the Sycamores have been chasing all year, but especially in February.
“It’s frustrating, especially coming off of three losses. I’ve had a lot of turnovers that hurt my team. We’ve been slipping a lot on mistakes, so it felt good to make it click in the last minute,” Cummings said.
Several of ISU’s 15 turnovers on Saturday were head-slappers. When there’s a drive into the paint and a kick-out pass to no one in particular on the perimeter? If it happens once, hey, it can happen to anyone. But when unforced turnovers occur on a regular basis you want to pull your hair out.
The Sycamores are told – during games and in practice – until Greg Lansing is blue in his face to concentrate and avoid silly mistakes. Yet …
“I tell them that every possession is the possession of their life — the start of the possession, during the possession and the finish of the possession — every one of them can be important,” Lansing said.
In the bad moments, one can get caught up in thinking that drips and drabs of ISU’s mental concentration have been left behind as the season has played out.
Some of it is on the floor in Hawaii, where ISU beat No. 2 Miami. Some of it was left in Wichita, Kan., where ISU won convincingly on the MVC leader’s home floor on Jan. 29. Some of it is hiding somewhere in the bowels of Hulman Center, where ISU waxed Creighton with one of its best-ever MVC efforts on Feb. 6.
Then ISU reminds you of what it’s capable of – as it showed in the final minute on Saturday – and you wonder where the concentration ever went in the first place?
There have only been two losses where it can be said that a team “beat” ISU – the opener at UCLA and the game at Creighton on Jan. 5. At least part of the blame for ISU’s other losses can be attributed to ill-timed lapses in concentration.
Free throw shooting – something partially attributable to concentration – has also waxed and waned. ISU shot 50 percent on Saturday. ISU has shot 70 percent or worse at the line in six of its 11 losses.
But against Iona, ISU had the reward for its final minute – a win. It’s always good to have positive reinforcement to drive home a point.
That last minute needs to be valued like gold. Covet it, treasure it, but most of all, remember it.
If ISU’s players can use Saturday’s finish as a reminder of where their focus needs to be for the majority of its remaining games, that can be just as big in the long run as the win itself.
Lansing has the faith in his players.
“We give away too many possessions. We turn it over too much, but I’m going to stick with my guys. They’re trying to make the right plays. They’re a little tentative because they know how much it upsets me to turn it over. But if we’re a constant on the defensive end, we’re going to be OK,” Lansing said.
If ISU’s can find a way to maintain its mental edge, it can be more than OK. It can enjoy a busy March.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Please follow him on Twitter