On paper, the Ohio State women's basketball team should not have had any trouble dispatching Illinois, even on the road. The Buckeyes, ranked No. 7 in the country, entered the matchup on a four-game winning streak, while the Illini had lost 11 of their last 12.
A gritty Illinois team gave Ohio State all they could handle, though, riding a terrific performance by sophomore center Chatrice White to take the game right down to the wire. The Buckeyes held on for an 80-70 win in Champaign, spurred by their own post presence, sophomore Alexa Hart.
"I was really proud of our kids for finding a way to win a tough game on the road," head coach Kevin McGuff said after the game.
Ohio State improved to 9-1 in Big Ten play, and 17-4 overall, while Illinois fell to 1-9 in conference play, 8-13 overall.
Of note just before tip-off was the announcement that junior Shayla Cooper, the Buckeyes' leading rebounder and third-leading scorer, would not be playing due to a coach's decision. Cooper missed a game earlier in the season due to a suspension stemming from an incident on the bench during a nonconference trip to Cincinnati.
Hart got Ohio State off to a great start, scoring eight points, grabbing five rebounds, and blocking two shots in the first quarter. Senior Ameryst Alston was also aggressive, scoring seven points of her own.
But Illinois came out shooting the three ball and sharing the ball well. The Illini made their first five attempts from long range, including three by sophomore Brooke Kissinger. The only way the Buckeyes were able to slow the Nebraska native down was when she went to the bench with her second foul. Kissinger went on to sink another in the second quarter for a 12-point first half.
Illinois assisted on six of its eight field goals in the first ten minutes, and finished with a 21-20 advantage. Sophomore Kelsey Mitchell, the Big Ten's leading scorer was the only Ohio State player besides Hart and Alston to score, putting up five points.
The Buckeyes struggled from the floor to start the second quarter, making just two their first seven shots. The Illini's frontcourt duo of White and freshman Alex Wittinger combined to score their squad's first 12 points in the frame. White's 4-for-5 shooting from behind the arc in the first half was especially lethal, as the 6-foot-3 center scored 16 points to lead all scorers in the first half.
Mitchell tried to take over the game in the half's final four minutes. She hit Hart for a pair of transition layups and knocked down a pair of three-pointers, including one from the right wing after a pirouette. She finished the game's first twenty minutes 13 points and two assists, and propelled Ohio State to a 49-41 lead.
Hart led the Ohio State with 14 points on 7-for-9 shooting, eight rebounds, and three blocks, while Alston added 11 points and a team-high four assists.
After the intermission, Illinois came roaring back with a 13-4 run. White continued her dominant play, scoring the first four points of the third quarter, and sophomore Kennedy Cattenhead knocked down a corner three and split a pair of free throws.
Meanwhile the Illini employed a zone defense that stymied the Buckeyes, who turned the ball over four times early. A three-pointer from the right wing by senior Kyley Simmons gave the Illini the lead, 52-51, in the half's first four minutes.
In all, Ohio State had seven third quarter turnovers and shot just 2-for-10 from the floor, scoring a meager 10 points, and heading to the final ten minutes with a one-point lead, 59-58.
The first four minutes of the fourth quarter was ugly for both sides, but then the action picked up. A long-range make by senior Cait Craft with six minutes to go, her third triple of the game, pushed the Buckeye lead back out to four at 66-62. The next two possessions, the two sides traded three-pointers, one by Kissinger and one by Alston, and the final five minutes set up to be a dogfight.
Redshirt freshman Makayla Waterman, getting crunchtime minutes with Cooper on the sidelines, had a pair of big offensive rebounds, and Mitchell drilled a three-pointer and an elbow jumper for a 76-68 lead inside two minutes.
Ohio State once again had just enough to hold on, as Alston and Hart each sunk a pair of free throws to ice the game for the 80-70 lead.
Alston led the Buckeyes with 24 points, including 12-for-12 from the free throw line, along with five rebounds and four assists. Hart nearly missed a triple-double, scoring 18 points, grabbing 14 boards, and blocking eight shots. Mitchell added 22 points, six rebounds, and four assists of her own.
White turned in a double-double in the losing effort, leading all scorers with 26 points and hauling in 10 rebounds. Kissinger finished with 15 points and Wittinger had a double-double of her own, scoring 13 points and grabbing 10 boards. The Illini knocked down 12 three-point field goals as a team.
Up next for Ohio State is a home game on Thursday night against Wisconsin. The game tips off at 7:00 p.m. ET and will be televised on BTN Plus