The Hoosiers ended non-conference play with a win against one of the Atlantic Sun Conference’s best. Indiana was without seven-foot star Kel’el Ware and, once again, senior point guard Xavier Johnson. Despite students being on winter break, 16,689 IU fans packed Assembly Hall and cheered on their Hoosiers to a victory to end 2023.
Coach Woodson stressed the importance of coming out of the gate strong, and Indiana did just that to start the game. Mackenzie Mgbako had nine points in the first three minutes, hitting his first three shots from behind the arc. Add in buckets from Reneau, Sparks, and Cupps, and the Hoosiers had an early 18-8 lead at the first TV timeout.
The Hoosiers and Owls went back and forth for the majority of the first half, and the Indiana lead was still at ten with just under four minutes left, 44-34. In the next three minutes, Kennesaw State went on a mini 12-6 run to cut the Hoosier lead to four at the half.
Both teams continued to trade baskets to start the second half. Payton Sparks provided a spark for the Hoosiers with a put-back dunk and an “And-1” layup. However, three-pointers from Simeon Cottle and Terrell Burden gave Kennesaw State a 68-64 lead with 13 minutes to go.
It was a short-lived lead for the Owls. A few possessions later, Kaleb Banks hit a jump shot and was fouled. He cut the deficit back to one, and the Hoosiers didn’t look back. Indiana kicked it up a notch, ending the game on a 36-19 run after being down by four. The Hoosiers hit the century mark for the first time this season and were victorious by a score of 100-87.
The crucial run to end the game for Indiana was in large part due to the incredible play of Malik Reneau. After the Hoosiers went down four, the sophomore scored 16 of the Hoosiers’ 36 points to end the game. Reneau finished with a career-high 34 points on 13-19 from the field. He also added 11 rebounds, four assists, two steals, and a block. Indiana needed Reneau to step up in Kel’el Ware’s absence, and he did that and more.
"He's getting better," Woodson said when asked about Reneau. "Everybody talks about development and who is being developed and this and that. And Malik, based on where he started with us last season and where he is today, he's a lot better. And I think there's a lot of room still to grow as a player. He's just got to keep pushing, and we've got to keep pushing him to get better."
Aside from Reneau, the Hoosiers had five other players reach double figures. Mackenzie Mgbako scored an efficient 14 points on 5-7 from the field and 4-5 from behind the arc. Starting in place of Ware, Payton Sparks flirted with a double-double, amassing ten points, eight rebounds, and four blocked shots. Trey Galloway scored 14 points but did a great job facilitating the offense, racking up seven assists. Kaleb Banks had 12 points off the bench, and Anthony Walker had 10, grabbing five rebounds apiece.
Despite multiple scares, Indiana finishes non-conference play with no bad losses. They go into the bulk of their conference schedule with a 10-3 overall record, which includes two Big Ten wins from early December. The Hoosiers hope to have both Kel’el Ware and Xavier Johnson back for a tough road test on Wednesday night against the Nebraska Cornhuskers.