Ohio State, looking to bounce back after losing to Michigan on Tuesday, overcame early shooting struggles and foul trouble for senior floor leader Aaron Craft to escape Illinois with a win, 48-39. For the Buckeyes, who avoided dipping back below .500 in Big Ten play, it was the first win in three years in Champaign.
After a first half that saw Ohio State shoot just 33.3 percent and make just one of seven from the three-point line en route to a 23-20 deficit, the Buckeyes used tough defense and key second half contributions from the bench to frustrate the Illini, who shot just 28 percent from the floor and had two separate seven-plus minute scoring droughts.
Craft was the only Buckeye in double-figures, scoring 14 points and adding three steals. LaQuinton Ross added nine, but it was eight from freshman Marc Loving that keyed the victory. Tracy Abrams paced Illinois with 13 points, and leading scorer Rayvonte Rice had 11.
Things got off to another cold shooting start for Thad Matta's squad, and early turnovers, a seemingly constant struggle for the team, allowed the Illini to get out to an early lead. Craft, though, was assertive from the opening tip, scoring seven of the Buckeyes' first nine points, and keeping them in the game.
The struggles putting the ball in the hoop on offense and corralling rebounds on defense, the combination that plagued the Buckeyes on Tuesday, when an eight point lead evaporated in the second half against the Wolverines, reared their head again. With Craft on the bench with two early fouls, a seven and a half minute scoring drought and three Nnanna Egwu offensive boards pushed the Illinois lead to six. Egwu finished with a career-high 13 rebounds, four of which came on the offensive glass, and added three blocked shots.
A twirling lay-in by LaQuinton Ross with 9:30 to play in the half ended the scoreless streak. An Amadeo Della Valle corner triple, the first make behind the arc for Ohio State in the game, and a steal and layup from Shannon Scott cut the Illinois lead to a point, 17-16, at the under-8 timeout.
Ohio State tightened up the defense, but had more trouble taking care of the ball and getting anything to drop on the offensive end, and Illinois extended its lead on a pair of Rice free throws and an Egwu jumper, to 23-18 with three minutes remaining. The half ended with neither team having much to call home about, as buckets were at a premium. A Scott steal led to a Sam Thompson dunk in transition, but back-to-back offensive fouls by Della Valle and Amir Williams squandered opportunities to cut the lead any further, trailing 23-20.
The story of the second half was the shooting woes of Illinois, who had just six field goals in the final twenty minutes and shot just 28 percent from the field for the game. Ohio State came out of halftime making a concerted effort to get leading scorer LaQuinton Ross involved. Ross, who had just four points at the break, got the half started with a corner three and a couple of free throws which drew the Buckeyes even at 25 at the under-16 timeout.
Aaron Craft hit a three-pointer with the shot clock winding down after the under-16, giving the Buckeyes their first lead in the game since 6-5. A Craft steal and blocks by Sam Thompson and Ross stymied the Illini, who went scoreless for nearly six minutes. A deep jumper by Lenzelle Smith, Jr. extended the lead to 30-25, prompting a timeout from Illinois Head Coach John Groce with 13:45 remaining. Nnanna Egwu knocked down an 18-footer out of the break to end the Illini drought, and then fouled Trey McDonald on a sure dunk, after which McDonald missed a pair from the free throw line. On the ensuing Illinois possession, Craft picked up his third foul and was again forced to the bench. Two Abrams free throws were followed by a monster put-back dunk by McDonald, and the Buckeyes led 32-29 at the under-12 timeout.
Illini turnovers led to eight consecutive points for Marc Loving, coming on a corner jumper, a runner in the lane after a nice shot-fake, a couple of free throws, and an 18-footer, pushing Ohio State's lead to eleven, at 40-29, with just under eight minutes to play. Loving had been scoreless for the Buckeyes in the month of February.
Another drought for Illinois, this time covering over seven minutes, pushed the lead to 42-29. Rayvonte Rice finally hit a three to end the second long scoreless stretch of the half. Craft answered with a pull-up jumper off the window, and the Buckeyes led 44-32 at the under-4 timeout.
Turnovers began piling up for the Illini, but Ohio State failed to capitalize. A three-pointer off the glass and two driving layups by Rice cut the lead to five, at 44-39 with just under a minute left, but it was too little too late. Free throws by Smith and Craft helped ice the game, as the Buckeyes escaped with a 48-39 win.
Ohio State improved to 7-6 in the Big Ten, 20-6 overall, and will host Northwestern at Value City Arena on Wednesday night. For Illinois, this was the fifth straight home loss, and tenth in their last eleven overall. The Illini fall to 3-10 and the basement of the Big Ten, and at 14-12, are just two games above .500. They travel to The Barn on Wednesday to take on Minnesota.
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