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No. 22 Ohio State men hang on in thriller to beat No. 15 Illinois 86-83

Malaki Branham is the real deal and probably heading to the NBA.

Ohio State v Illinois Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

As we move through February and into March, every college basketball game becomes increasingly important. The men’s basketball Buckeyes came into their late night matchup on Thursday against Illinois coming off of a huge, overtime win over Indiana on Monday night to after falling to Iowa 75-62 on Saturday.

Coming into the contest against the Illini, both teams were sitting in the top-four of the Big Ten standings; the top-four teams at the end of the regular season receive a double-bye straight into the quarterfinals of the conference tournament, and — more importantly — two days of extra rest before their respective postseasons begin.

In this one, the No. 22 Buckeyes and the No. 15 Illinois Fighting Illini played a memorable one in Champaign, Ill. Both teams had double-digit leads at various points in the game, and both teams allowed their opponents to come charging back. But with a chance to tie or win the game with four seconds remaining, Illinois turned the ball over to cement a Buckeyes’ 86-83 win.

After being up 75-58 with 5:58 remaining in regulation, the Buckeyes did not hit another field goal until 1:06 remaining. That Liddell bucket put OSU up 82-78.

Despite rumors of his illness on Monday night against Indiana, many Buckeye fans were surprised to see star forward E.J. Liddell marked as questionable on the availability report for Thursday’s game. Liddell played 42 minutes against Indiana while battling the flu and apparently was not yet fully recovered by the time the Buckeyes went to his home state of Illinois.

However, despite the uncertainty pregame, Chris Holtmann ran out the same starters that he had in recent games as Jamari Wheeler, Eugene Brown, Malaki Branham, Liddell and Zed Key opened the game for the Buckeyes.

It was going to be a battle from the beginning. Alfonzo Plummer and Trent Frazier got the scoring going for the Illini, knocking down early jump shots and putting the Buckeyes in a tough spot to begin.

Illinois went up 18-8 to start the game, but Ohio State did a good job of weathering the Illinois storm. At the under eight media timeout, the Buckeyes trailed just 25-22. The Buckeyes cut the Illinois lead to 37-36 at the half. However, the Buckeyes never led.

To start the second half, three quick buckets for the Buckeyes gave them a 42-37 lead, forcing Illinois to take an early timeout. It was a 12-0 run for the Buckeyes going back to the first half.

The Buckeyes opened up their lead all the way to 16, going up 58-42 after a Cedric Russell jump shot and a Brad Underwood technical foul. With 11 minutes left in regulation, Illinois star center Kofi Cockburn picked up his fourth personal foul.

After 18 first half points and six three-pointers, Alfonzo Plummer did not record his first second half points until halfway through the period.

The Illini and Buckeyes continued to go back and forth and the Buckeyes led 66-56 at the under-8 media timeout. Then, with six minutes remaining, Illinois head coach Brad Underwood picked up his second technical foul, resulting in his ejection.

After the two free throws from Malaki Branham, the Buckeyes took a 74-58 lead. With 4:52 remaining in the contest, Cockburn reentered with four fouls. He had been sitting since the 12 minute mark. He immediately picked up his fifth foul after knocking down Kyle Young tracking down an offensive rebound. Cockburn finished with 12 points, three rebounds and one steal on 5-for-15 shooting. It was his second time fouling out of the season.

After the Buckeyes went up 78-66 with five minutes left, Illinois went on a fast 10-0 run after a Plummer three and Trent Frazier was fouled by Cedric Russell shooting a three. With 1:49 left in the game, the Buckeyes took a timeout up by two and with the ball.

EJ Liddell pushed the Buckeye lead to 82-78 after an elbow jumper but Coleman Hawkins immediately answered for the Illini, making the score 82-80 and forcing the Buckeye timeout.

Liddell was fouled with 32 seconds left and pushed the lead to four. After an offensive rebound for Illinois, Trent Frazier nailed a three-pointer to cut the Buckeye lead to one with 14 seconds left.

Kyle Young was fouled for Ohio State with nine seconds left in the game, splitting the free throws. Down two, Trent Frazier drove into the lane for Illinois, but turned the ball over, giving the ball back to Ohio State.

Cedric Russell then spilt free throws to give the Buckeyes an 86-83 lead which would end up being the final score.

For Ohio State, Branham finished with 31 point and Liddell had with 21.


Plummer starts hot

Illinois starting guard Alfonso Plummer knocked down his first four three-pointers. He was shooting 40% from three-point range on the season, but was 0-for-7 from deep in his last two games coming into Thursday night. Plummer — a transfer from Utah — was averaging 14.7 points per game coming in.

In the first half, Plummer was a very nice 6-for-9 from the floor (and 6-of-7 from distance) and led all scorers with 18 at the break.


Ohio State fights back

After going down 18-8 after the second media timeout, the Buckeyes used some versatile and

The Buckeyes started 3-for-13 from the floor and then made six of their next eight shots to pull the score with three minutes remaining. Bench points were key, with Kyle Young scoring 13 points and Justin Ahrens adding five in the opening half.


Cockburn proves to be a handful

It was not the prettiest start for Cockburn, who was just 4-for-12 from the floor at one point in the first half. However, he was forcing three to four Buckeye defenders into the paint on every possession and letting other Illinois shooters get some open looks on kick outs.


Young starts strong

Scoring has been hard lately for guys that are not Liddell or Branham, but super senior and #GirlDad Kyle Young scored 13 points on 5-for-5 shooting in the first half. He took advantage of playing small and forcing Kofi Cockburn to have to play perimeter and active defense. Young was a game best +14 at the half.


Buckeyes close and start strong

Ohio State cut the Illini lead to just one at the half. The Buckeyes entered the game just 2-6 when trailing at the break, but they immediately took 42-37 lead just minutes into the second half.

The Buckeyes extended the advantage to 52-39 thanks to an impressive 22-2 run going back into the second half. Branham scored seven straight during the run.