The Ohio State men’s basketball team traveled to one of the tougher places to play in the Big Ten on Tuesday night, as the Buckeyes (11-9, 3-6) fell to the Illinois Fighting Illini (14-6, 5-4), 69-60.
The Buckeyes came into this one on a one-game winning streak after taking down Iowa 93-77 on Saturday afternoon to break a five-game losing streak. They lost all five of those games by single digits and it was the first time in school history they lost five games in a row by single digits.
Ohio State freshman Brice Sensabaugh has been their leading scorer this season, averaging 17.5 points per game. Over the last seven games, Sensabaugh is averaging 20.6 points per game and 8.1 rebounds per game. He won his fourth Big Ten Freshman of the Week award last week after scoring 27 points on 10-for-12 shooting in the win over Iowa.
Ohio State junior big man Zed Key was a full participant in this contest, as he hurt his knee at the end of the win over Iowa. Key came into this game averaging 12.1 points per game and 8.1 rebounds per game, third and first on the team respectively.
Illinois came into this one winning four of their five games after losing their first three conference games of the season. However, their last time on the floor was a 80-65 home loss against Indiana.
Illinois also leads the league in blocks per game at six, so Key being able to go in this one was important for the Buckeyes to help minimize the impact down low from Illinois.
The Buckeyes employed a starting lineup of Bruce Thornton, Sean McNeil, Isaac Likekele, Brice Sensabaugh, and Zed Key. This was the first time they utilized that starting lineup this season and their seventh different starting lineup this season.
Illinois went up 5-2 early and Ohio State responded with a 7-0 run to take a 9-5 lead. The offense did not come quick early, as Illinois held a 12-10 lead halfway through the quarter. After some back-and-forth scoring, Sensabaugh started 3-for-7 from the field and had nine of the Buckeyes' first 17 points.
The Buckeyes got into foul trouble early, as Justice Sueing picked up his third foul with five minutes left in the first half and Brice Sensabaugh played a lot of the first half with two fouls.
Illinois went on an 8-2 after taking that 19-17 lead and extended their lead to 27-19 with just over four minutes remaining in the first half.
Illinois led 34-26 at the half. This was their biggest halftime lead over the Buckeyes since 2017 and that was also the last time Illinois beat the Buckeyes in Champaign.
Sensabaugh led the Buckeyes with nine first-half points and Terrance Shannon led all scorers with 12 first-half points, including going 6-for-6 from the free throw line.
To start the second half, Illinois jumped out to a 38-26 lead, but five quick points from the Buckeyes cut the lead to 38-31. However, the Fighting Illini then scored 10 straight points to take a 48-31 lead with 15:13 left in the game to force an Ohio State timeout. The 17-point deficit was the largest of the season for the Buckeyes.
Sueing was able to stop the bleeding with a two-point bucket to cut the Illinois lead to 15. The two teams traded baskets back and forth and Illinois led 52-39 at the under-12 timeout.
The Buckeyes went on a 7-0 run and cut the Illinois lead down to nine. Illinois big man Dain Dainja picked up his fourth foul just under the 10-minute mark and had to head to the bench.
However, the Buckeyes struggled to truly make it a game in the second half and Illinois kept the lead at the eight to 14-point mark for most of the second half. Zed Key fouled out with five minutes left with eight points on just 2-for-8 shooting.
The Buckeyes trailed 69-52 at the under-4-minute timeout and just could not string together enough scores and stops to make this one interesting. Illinois outscored the Buckeyes 16-0 on fast break points and 13-5 on second-chance points.
For the Buckeyes, Brice Sensabaugh finished with 14 points on 5-for-12 shooting from the field and Justice Sueing finished with 10 points. For the Fighting Illini, Terrance Shannon led the way with 17 points, and four Illinois starters finished in double figures.
Here are three takeaways from the Buckeyes' loss to Illinois.
Justice Sueing should continue to come off the bench
Coming into the season, Justice Sueing was the guy that most people anticipated being the number one scorer and overall player on this Buckeye team. However, in his return from the injury that kept him on the bench all of last season, Sueing has struggled and his play has been very inconsistent, especially on the offensive end of the ball.
Head coach Chris Holtmann elected to bring him off the bench for the first time this season against Iowa and it seemed to pay dividends. He had a decent stat line, scoring 10 points on 4-for-9 shooting with two rebounds, two assists, and a steal. He still played 30 minutes, but he seemed to be freed up a little bit coming off the bench and taking some of the pressure off.
If he can continue this production, he should stay coming off the bench and providing that spark for the Buckeyes.
The vets have to step up
In the first half, Zed Key and Justice Sueing combined for two points and five fouls. That just simply is not good enough. Sueing is in a serious slump and credit to him for continuing to battle and work hard on defense as I mentioned above, but he is the swiss army knife on this team and he has to start playing like it.
Zed Key only took two shots in the first half and had zero points and even though he has battled injuries to his shoulder and now his knee, if he is playing then he has to produce for Ohio State. Backup center Felix Okpara has shown some flashes of potential this season, but he is not ready for a main role in the offense yet this season.
If Ohio State wants to turn this season around, it will be up to Justice Sueing and Zed Key and how they play down the stretch.
The little things matter
This feels like an obvious statement, but it is something the Buckeyes could remember right now. Whether it is a box out, an offensive rebound, or a careless turnover, it seems like the Buckeyes are struggling right now with some of the fundamentals of the game.
In the first half of this one, the Buckeyes were just 3-for-6 from the free throw line while Illinois was 11-for-13. Also in the first half, the Fighting Illini outrebounded the Buckeyes 17-10. The Buckeyes actually had more offensive rebounds at 7 to 3, but they struggled to capitalize on any of those offensive rebounds and turn them into second-chance points.
The little things are what can take a team from good to great and when you lose five games in a row, all by single digits, those little things are hard to look past. If the Buckeyes want to make a run to March, they have to clean those up.
As is life in the Big Ten, the road does not get any easier for the Buckeyes. Ohio State will now travel to Assembly Hall to take on the Indiana Hoosiers (13-6, 4-4) in a rare weekend primetime game at 8 p.m. ET on Fox. Indiana has won three games in a row.