DETROIT, Mi. – Any momentum IUPUI built up during the last two weeks of the season and the first 36 minutes against Oakland Monday night was lost at the end. IUPUI beat Oakland as part of a 4-1 stretch at the end of the season. Despite a crowd heavily favoring Oakland, IUPUI was in position to steal a first round win in the Horizon League Tournament. Tied at 53 with four minutes to go, IUPUI tensed up and let the game slip away. Oakland ended on a 9-2 run to win 62-55.
Aaron Brennan has been the go-to guy for IUPUI all year. He came up big with 14 points on 5-for-8 shooting and nine rebounds. The two other big offensive contributors this year, Ron Patterson and T.J. Henderson, came up almost empty. Henderson scored eight while Patterson went scoreless and the two combined to shoot just 3-for-17.
On the other side of the ball, Kendrick Nunn was inefficient shooting, but finished with 18 points and five assists. Nunn also knocked down some late free throws to seal the game.
In the first half, Oakland looked like the team everyone predicted would run away with the Horizon League before all of their injuries. They jumped out to a 22-9 lead in the first nine minutes. While IUPUI had little success away from home this season, they were even worse when falling behind by 10 or more points in the first half. This time they answered. Down 24-14 with 9:13 to go in the half, they went on a 9-0 run. They never led in the half, but with 10 seconds to go, Jaylen Minnett hit a long, highly-contested three-point basket as the shot clock expired to tie the game at 28.
IUPUI then took their first lead of the game on the first possession of the second half with a bucket from D.J. McCall. Outside of a 30-seconds stretch midway through the second half, no one was able to gain any separation. The score stayed within three points until the final minute. Jalen Hayes hit a jumper to go up 48-43 with 8:13 to go, but Henderson answered with a three-point play 30 seconds later and Brennan tied the game with 7:01 left. Nearly three minutes later, Oakland led 53-50 and Brennan hit a 3-pointer to tie the game again.
Over the final four minutes though, IUPUI fell apart. They shot just 1-for-6 will turning the ball over three times and fouling Oakland four times. McCall hit a shot with 1:24 left to pull IUPUI within one, but Oakland immediately answered. IUPUI had to chances on their next possession thanks to an offensive rebound, but got nothing. From there Nunn closed out the game going 4-for-4 from the line.
Losing in the first round of the Horizon League Tournament isn’t a disaster for IUPUI. They were under .500 all season long and hovered around .500 in the Horizon League. They had just two wins away from home all season. It was their first year in the Horizon League and they were the underdog in the first game in the tournament. The consolation doesn’t go far though. Despite their struggles throughout the season, they finished the year with a 4-2 stretch including a win over Oakland. They were tied with four minutes to go and down just one with 84 seconds left. Had the Jaguars won, they would have faced eighth-seeded Cleveland State who knocked off Northern Kentucky in the first round. Add to that the growing frustration for a team that has had just one post-season win in four years under coach Jason Gardner and this is a bit of let-down.
Gardner has finally been able to shape this team how he wants after four years. They’ve finished their first year in the Horizon League and had time to adjust. They finished the season winning four of six games and nearly stole their first-round game against Oakland. There will be some turnover losing both Brennan and Patterson, but this is a team positioned to get better. Henderson and McCall will be taking on a more leading role and several transfers will be eligible to play to next year. There won’t be much of an excuse for not making a big improvement next year and advancing in the tournament.