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What we saw in Ohio State’s 87-81 victory over Illinois

It was a classic physical Big Ten bout between the Buckeyes and the Illini on Saturday.

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into Saturday, No. 21 Ohio State had yet to play any of the top four teams in the Big Ten. This conference top to bottom is incredibly tough, but the quartet of Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois have seemingly separated themselves from the rest of the pack as truly elite contenders on the national scale. The Buckeyes got their first taste of one of the B1G’s best on Saturday, heading to Champaign to take on the No. 14 Illinois Fighting Illini.

Despite missing a pair of point guards and being largely undersized, Ohio State was able to upset Illinois 87-81 in what was the team’s biggest win of the season to date. The Buckeyes got out to a big lead in the first half thanks to an impressive display of three-point shooting and some strong defensive play and they never looked back. Leading by as many as 18 points, Ohio State weathered a second-half storm by the Illini to escape another physical B1G bout with a W.

The Buckeyes were led by E.J. Liddell, who scored a career-high 26 points to go along with seven rebounds. Most impressively, Liddell was 4-of-7 from three-point range — the first time in his Ohio State career he hit more than a pair of triples in a game. As a whole, the team put together their best shooting performance of the season from downtown, hitting 11-of-21 (52%) from beyond the arc led by a trio of makes by Justin Ahrens and a 2-of-3 day from Seth Towns from deep.

Ohio State (11-3) has now won four of its last five games, and moves into fourth place (5-3) in the tough and talented Big Ten conference.

Sending the house

We knew coming into this game that size was going to be a problem for Ohio State, specifically when it came to guarding the 7-foot, 285-pound Illinois center Kofi Cockburn. The massive hulking presence inside is one of the Illini’s top players, averaging 17.3 points and 10.1 rebounds per game this season. Compared to the Buckeyes, whose tallest rotational players are Kyle Young and Zed Key at 6-foot-8, it was clear that Cockburn was going to necessitate multiple double and triple-teams in order to keep him from going off.

Early on, Ohio State looked to do just that. Seemingly every time Cockburn caught the ball, the Buckeyes immediately crashed inside with two or even three defenders to try and slow him down. Illinois is the best three-point shooting team in the Big Ten, coming into the afternoon leading the conference with their 41.2% clip from deep, but if Holtmann’s guys had any chance at upsetting the Illini, they were going to have live with letting up a few deep balls if they wished to keep Cockburn from getting easy bucket after easy bucket in the paint.

This strategy worked out quite well for Ohio State in the first period, as Cockburn managed just four points and four rebounds in the half. He would go on to finish with 15 points and 11 rebounds, but with the mismatch he creates inside that has to be considered a win for the Buckeyes.

Coming out hot

Speaking of three-point shooting, the Buckeyes have not exactly excelled in that area this season. Coming into Saturday, Ohio State ranked near the bottom of the conference (11th) hitting 32.8% from beyond the arc. Duane Washington Jr. and Justin Ahrens had been two of Ohio State’s only real consistent threats from downtown, with Seth Towns hitting at a high percentage but not playing significant minutes yet as he continues to work his way back from injury. Early on against Illinois, nearly everyone was knocking it down from range.

The Buckeyes hit on six of their first seven attempts from three-point land against the Illini, which helped open up a 15-0 run midway through the first period to give Holtmann’s squad a 15-point lead midway through the half. Ohio State was getting production from all over the floor, with E.J. Liddell extending his range with a trio of three-pointers over the first 10 minutes of action, and Washington, Towns and Meechie Johnson each hitting a triple of their own. One way to overcome a size mismatch inside is to hit your shots, and the Buckeyes were certainly getting that done in the first period.

Overall, Ohio State finished the half shooting 7-of-11 from deep. Towns, now sans the knee brace he began the year with and moving the best he has this season, knocked down both of his two attempts in the first period. Liddell, who came into the game shooting under 17% from beyond the arc, led the Buckeyes with three triples on four tries. Johnson, the freshman, hit his lone three-point attempt to begin his Ohio State career a perfect 3-of-3 from downtown after he was 2-of-2 from range last time out against Northwestern.

A near-perfect period

Against a team as talented as Illinois, you cannot afford to get out to a slow start. Ohio State did exactly the opposite of that, putting together one of their most impressive periods of the season thus far through the first 20 minutes against the Illini in almost all aspects of the game. On top of their incredibly efficient shooting from downtown, the Buckeyes shot 53% from the field overall as a team, led by 13 points from Liddell and eight points from Towns heading into the locker room.

Ohio State led in nearly every statistical category after the first period, but what was most impressive was their work on the glass. Against the Big Ten’s best rebounding team, the Buckeyes out-rebounded the Illini 20-11 in the half. OSU pulled down six offensive rebounds which led to eight second-chance points, compared to zero second-chance points for Illinois. Defensively, they managed to hold the dynamic duo of Cockburn and Ayo Dosunmu to just eight points combined in the period. The OSU bench outscored the Illinois bench 17-7.

The Buckeyes had some turnover issues just before the break, but it wasn’t enough to undo all the other great things the team was doing as they took a 43-28 lead into halftime.

Fearless freshmen

Ohio State needed guys to step up in the absence of C.J. Walker and Jimmy Sotos. The Buckeyes guard depth really took a hit when those guys went down, and Holtmann needed someone to fill those important roles in the backcourt. He probably did not expect important minutes at point guard to be played by a kid who should still be in high school, but that is exactly what he got from freshman Meechie Johnson.

Despite getting in only a few practices before making his Ohio State debut against Rutgers, Johnson has looked really solid in his limited action. He got his first real playing time last game against the Wildcats, scoring six points with one assist and a rebound in 11 minutes. You could tell even in just that game that Johnson’s confidence was growing with each additional minute, and right from his first time on the court on Saturday he looked much more comfortable in the Ohio State offense.

In addition to Johnson, Holtmann has gotten phenomenal play all season long from Zed Key. The 6-foot-8 freshman has been a key player off the bench for this Buckeyes squad, averaging 6.9 points and 3.8 rebounds per game. He showed no fear against the Illini, even against the much bigger Cockburn, taking him to the rack off three dribbles for a bucket in the first period. This Ohio State team is incredibly deep, and if Holtmann can continue to get big minutes from his freshmen, they can be a real dangerous team as the year goes on.

Weathering the storm

Right from the opening of the second period, Illinois started to show some of the things that have made them one of the best teams in the conference this season. The shots finally started to fall, the pace of the game picked up, and the physicality we have seen in so many of these Big Ten matchups began to intensify. Cockburn and Dosunmu weren’t going to be kept under wraps forever, and if Ohio State wanted to hold on to their lead and come away with a victory, they would have to stay strong at both ends through the final whistle.

The Illini came out hot, cutting the Buckeye lead to just six points in the first few minutes of the second half. Ohio State, however, was able to overcome the strong surge and push the lead back up to double-digits. The two teams continued to fight back and forth, and with 6:36 remaining in the game, OSU led 67-57. Illinois tried to rattle the Bucks with a full-court press, and even without their point guards Holtmann’s guys were doing a good job of getting the ball up the court.

Every time Illinois started to go on a little run, Ohio State had an answer. Ahrens hit some huge threes down the stretch, and the Buckeyes continued to move the ball around effectively while staying solid on the defensive end. In the end, some clutch shooting and and a phenomenal full-team effort from all five guys on the floor at any given time helped lead Ohio State to a huge victory over a really good Illini squad.