Aaron Craft and the Buckeyes were too much for Illinois. - USA TODAY Sports
The Buckeyes finish 23-7, 13-5 in conference and lock up the #2 seed in next Thursday-Sunday's Big Ten Tournament.
Ohio State knew entering Sunday's senior day they'd need to be on their game in order to avenge an early season throttling at the hands of Illinois. Behind a strong effort from junior star point guard Aaron Craft (14 points, 6 assists, 4 rebounds) and a typically stout offensive showing from forward Deshaun Thomas (19 points), Ohio State downed Illinois, 68-55.
On the Illini side of the ledger, senior Brandon Paul finished with 21 points though was just 3-for-9 from three and ultimately fouled out with four minutes to play. Guard D.J. Richardson was the only other Fighting Illini player to reach double digits in scoring, finishing with 10 on just 4-for-11 from the field and more dooming for Illinois, 1-for-6 from 3. The Illini were without sometimes starter/sixth man Joseph Bertrand, who was unable to make it through pregame warmups.
After the two teams tipped off, Illinois jumped out to a quick lead. The Buckeyes battled back, and set up would what would be a long, even, back-and-forth stetch between the two sides. In what had every bit the look of a 12:30 p.m. early-afternoon-after-daylight-savings-time with the students on spring break, the two sides started a combined 8-25 from the field, in many ways helping to keep both of the two teams from being able to pull away from the other.
With the Buckeyes struggling to find any offensive consistency, the team went to one of its smallest lineups of the year, though arguably one that puts their five best players on the court at the same time together. Echoing Daryl Morey and Kevin McHale's vision for the Houston Rockets, the Buckeyes went exceedingly small with Shannon Scott, Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith Jr, Sam Thompson, and Deshaun Thomas all on the court at the same time.
Despite the inherent shortcomings on the interior defensive end, this group of five breathed new life into the Ohio State offense, and helped key one of the best stretches of the game for the Buckeyes. With the smaller, quicker, though all more offensively efficient players working in conjunction, the Buckeyes begin to make baskets at a clip that had escaped them for the majority of the game to that point.
The Illini and Buckeyes traded shot for shot during the first fifteen minutes of the game, but heading towards half time, the Buckeyes went on a 12-2 run which helped them go into the intermission up 33-24. With the Bucks shooting 50% from the floor (an eFG% of 56.3%) to a sub-40% showing from the Illini, the Buckeyes took full advantage of the Illini's seven first half turnovers despite their best efforts to undermine themselves with six missed free throws.
Coming out of the locker room, Ohio State didn't appear to miss a beat. Deshaun Thomas started things off with a typically smooth jumper to further extend the lead. Despite being one of Illinois' rocks on both ends of the court historically, Brandon Paul continued a poor defensive game by his standards by letting Lenzelle Smith and Sam Thompson alike blow past him for easy baskets.
A few trademark Aaron Craft hustle plays later, Ohio State's lead continued to hover around double digits halfway through the second half. Both teams began to look mildly out of gas at this juncture, leading to both the two sides and the officials alike getting chippy with one another. At one stretch, Lenzelle Smith Jr drew a technical foul for objecting to an obvious no-call and the graduating/honored during pre-game Ravenel also having a rather spirited discussion with the officials following another dubious sequence that resulted in a flagrant foul call.
In spite of the students' absence (which seemed to impact Ohio State's energy), the Buckeyes still managed to play at a clip that positioned them to find themselves on top when everything was said and done. While Illinois exhibited plenty of gumption to continue to battle back from double digit deficits to make things feel closer than the scoreboard often indicated, the Buckeyes were just too much for Illinois when push came to shove.
After the game, Thad Matta would tell the media, "I am so proud of this team. A lot of people had them dead to rights a month ago, but they haven't lost since then." Matta's arguably done one of his best jobs of the season with this group, a team that at one point was openly speculated by overly critical media types as not being tournament worthy following the last time these two teams met. While the margin wasn't quite reciprocated, despite not having their a-game, Ohio State looked more than meriting a potential NCAA tournament 3 seed, and now heads into the post season with all kinds of positive momentum.
Ohio State finishes the year 23-7, 13-5 in Big Ten conference play. With the win, Ohio State secures the #2 seed and a first day bye in Thursday-Sunday's 2013 Big Ten basketball tournament. The Buckeyes will play the winner of Purdue and Nebraska Friday evening at 6:30 p.m. EDT on the Big Ten Network.