Austin Etherington smiled into the camera.
His team had just earned its first Big Ten conference win of the season, a 79-76 victory that wasn’t decided until the game’s final minute.
His team was trailing 72-70 against Penn State Jan. 11, and Etherington, a sophomore forward, hit a 3-pointer with little more than a minute remaining in the game.
The Hoosiers never relinquished the lead after his shot.
In the concourse of Penn State’s Bryce Jordan Center after the game, a reporter asked Etherington what was going through his head as he unleashed the shot. Etherington said he had no doubt it was going in.
“I just let it fly, you know,” Etherington said. “Just shoot the ball like we do every day. It felt pretty good.”
After the game, IU Coach Tom Crean described Etherington’s shot as monstrous.
“He’s a battler,” Crean said. “He’s scrappy, and really because he hasn’t played a lot the confidence is going to go one way or the other in a game.
“The fact that he went in and his confidence grew like it did to the point where he could knock down that shot in the corner was huge.”
It wasn’t always so easy for Etherington, who has fought his way into the rotation of the Hoosiers’ lineup this season.
In Etherington’s collegiate debut against Stony Brook on Nov. 11, 2011, he went 3-for-3 from the field, making both of his 3-point attempts. His eight points that game remain his career high.
In his freshman year, Etherington averaged 4.8 minutes and 1.3 points per game.
At the start of his sophomore campaign, Etherington began to see more playing time.
In his first three games last year, he averaged more than six minutes per game for the No. 1-ranked team in the country. Etherington saw his season end after just nine games, though, fracturing his kneecap on Dec. 9, 2012, during a game against Central Connecticut State.
Then-senior forward Christian Watford said it was difficult for him and the rest of the team to see a teammate get injured.
“It was a very tough moment,” Watford said. “When you have a guy that’s been through a lot with the program, it’s tough. He’s a teammate but also a friend of mine, so it’s always tough seeing a comrade go down like that.”
With three freshmen coming into the next season playing the same position and role as Etherington, his future with the team was uncertain.
Then came Indiana’s 79-72 loss to Notre Dame on Dec. 14. Etherington played 11 minutes and scored five points. He went 1-for-1 from the field and 3-for-3 from the free-throw line in the game.
It was a solid performance, but there was one particular play he didn’t make.
Early in the second half, with Indiana trailing, Etherington received a pass at the top of the key with no defender near.
He pump faked, and still no defender challenged him.
The Hoosiers fans in attendance yelled in unison, “Shoot it,” yet Etherington passed on the wide-open shot attempt.
He didn’t try the shot.
Etherington played 13 minutes in Indiana’s next game against Nicholls State, his longest yet.
His minutes, however, tapered off in the Hoosiers’ next three games. Etherington played six minutes against Kennesaw State, three minutes against Illinois and “DNP” in Indiana’s Big Ten home opener against Michigan State.
Since not playing against Michigan State, Etherington has played in each of Indiana’s past five games, seeing 17, 18, 19, 19 and 21 minutes — the latter a career high against Illinois. And with the absence of senior wing Will Sheehey at Michigan State on Jan. 21, Etherington made his first career start.
For the season, Etherington is averaging 2.4 points and 1.6 rebounds in 10.2 minutes per game. During his last five games, though, he averaged 4.6 points and 3.4 rebounds in 18.8 minutes per game.
Even though he doesn’t attempt many shots per game, Etherington is shooting 58.3 percent from the field. He also doesn’t turn the ball over.
Despite a four-turnover performance at Michigan State, Etherington has committed only eight turnovers this year.
Against Illinois Sunday he was the first player off the bench. With Indiana’s top three leading scorers with just four points among them in the first half, it was Etherington who stepped up. He scored seven points on 2-for-2 shooting from the field to lead the team in points after the half.
“I know that my role is to come in and try to bring as much energy to the game,” Etherington said. “You know, sometimes right after the start of the game. It’s like a slow game at some point, so I just come in and play my hardest and play with heart and try to feed some energy to these guys.”
Etherington is playing confidently, and it would seem that his confidence stems from his made 3-pointer against Penn State.
If Indiana had lost to Penn State, the team would have started Big Ten play 0-3, and an NCAA Tournament bid would’ve begun to look bleak.
After the Hoosiers defeated Illinois Sunday to improve to 3-4 in the Big Ten, Crean praised how far Etherington has come.
“I have to manage the game based on who is trying to do that inside of the game and keep the competition really high in practice so that we have another Austin Etherington that, three weeks ago, didn’t get in the game against Michigan State, and now he’s playing major minutes and he’s a very valuable guy for us,” Crean said.