Firmly and clearly outside of NCAA Tournament consideration with their brutal record in 2023, Ohio State (12-17, 4-14) found themselves once again in the spoiler role Sunday afternoon against an Illinois team (19-10, 10-8) fighting for a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament.
While the Buckeyes have shifted to “just play the young guys” mode, the Fighting Illini are trying to turn on the jets for a strong late-season push. Illinois senior guard Terrence Shannon Jr. will be a big help in that regard, as he returned this week after missing two games with a concussion he suffered in Illinois’ loss to Penn State on February 14.
With Shannon back in tow, Illinois head coach Brad Underwood rolled with a starting lineup of the aforementioned senior guard, as well as Jayden Epps, Matthew Mayer, Coleman Hawkins, and Dain Dainja.
Chris Holtmann went with a youthful starting five of Bruce Thornton, Roddy Gayle, Brice Sensabaugh, Felix Okpara, and Justice Sueing — who will be honored this Wednesday night at Ohio State’s senior night.
Fortunately, Ohio State fans didn’t have to wait for senior night for another victory, as the Buckeyes carried a tremendous first-half into a big home victory Sunday afternoon, 72-60. Thornton led Ohio State with 20 points on 8-11 shooting over 34 minutes, and also five rebounds and two assists. Sensabaugh and Sueing each had 14 points as well, with Sueing also racking up a double-double with 11 rebounds. Hawkins led four double-digit scorers on the Illini side with 14 points to go with seven rebounds, two assists, and two steals. Epps, Shannon, and Mayer all scored in double digits as well.
As a team, Ohio State shot 53.6% from the floor, despite going just 3-14 from three-point range. They out-rebounded Illinois 40-28, and the Buckeye bench outscored Illinois’ bench 18-15. Illinois shot 36.1% overall, and knocked down 6 of their 29 three-pointers (20.7%).
Illinois jumped out to an early 5-0 lead in the first minute, but Ohio State answered with an 8-0 run of their own and held a slim 10-8 lead at the first media timeout 5:31 into the game. Thornton was playing heads-up basketball early, either scoring or assisting on four of Ohio State’s first five buckets. The freshman guard scored six of the Buckeyes’ first 10 points of the day.
The Buckeyes extended that early run and took a 26-16 lead into the under-eight media timeout with 6:40 remaining in the opening 20. Thornton continued to play flawless basketball running point, and Gene Brown also contributed five early points to tie his season-high just in the first half (Brown would later set his season-high in the second half with nine total points). Illinois’ first-half offensive plan seemed a bit peculiar, as the 12th-best three-point shooting team in the B1G took 12 threes over the first 13 minutes of this game, hitting just three of them.
By the time the halftime horn sounded, Ohio State held a 41-29 lead, having played their best all-around half of basketball in nearly two months. Thornton led the Buckeyes with 13 first-half points on 6-7 shooting over 17 minutes. He also had three rebounds and an assist, with no turnovers. Sensabaugh, Sueing, Sean McNeil, and Brown each had five or more points for the Buckeyes in the first half as well.
Illinois was led in the first half by Hawkins, who had 10 points in the opening stanza. Mayer had nine points as well, all on threes, on 3-7 shooting from beyond the arc.
The two squads went back and forth over the first few minutes of the second half, with the Illini cutting Ohio State’s lead to 45-35 by the first media timeout of the second half at the 15:33 mark. The two teams combined to hit 5 of their 18 shots over the first four minutes of the second half, as offenses stalled and things became a bit more discombobulated on both ends.
Illinois, powered by Shannon, cut the lead down to four with 7:23 remaining in the game. The Illini did a better job keeping Thornton in check in the second half, meanwhile Shannon awoke from his first-half slumber — not too much unlike Jalen Pickett did the other night. The combo of Thornton being held in check and Sensabaugh only hitting 3 of his nine shots to this point made it tough for the Buckeyes to keep up the offense they had in the first half. Regardless, they clung to a small lead at the under-eight timeout.
Ohio State pushed the lead to 10 points with 2:16 after a Sueing steal and bucket, and were ultimately able to hang on and break the long losing streak with an impressive win over a tournament-bound Illinois team.
If you weren’t around Sunday afternoon to see the Buckeyes send Illinois packing, here area few key moments and runs that helped lead Ohio State to their second win in the last 55 days:
Ohio State answers Illinois’ 5-0 run with an 8-0 run of their own
Illinois got a quick three from Mayer and a layup from Hawkins to go up 5-0 early, but Thornton authored an 8-0 run for Ohio State to quickly pull the home team ahead. He scored three buckets and assisted on another to get the Buckeyes back in front 8-5 early on, and looked as locked in as he has all season long.
Buckeyes extend run, force Underwood to call a timeout
After going up 10-8 at the first media timeout, Ohio State continued to pressure Illinois into bad shots while also getting easy looks on the offensive end. Thornton continued to attack, even on the potential B1G Defensive Player of the Year, Shannon. The Buckeyes outscored Illinois 7-1 over a 2:34 span, causing Underwood to take a timeout with his team trailing 17-9. The Buckeyes knocked down 9 of their first 14 shots against an Illinois defense that’s rated No. 26 in the country according to KenPom.
Buckeyes crush the boards, go into halftime up a dozen
Ohio State dominated Illinois on the glass in the first half, out-rebounding Illinois 23-9 over the first 20 minutes. The Illini — the second-best rebounding team in the B1G — didn’t have a ton of chances for rebounds with Ohio State hitting 60.7% of their shots over the first 20 minutes. Illinois shot just 36.7% during the opening stanza, however, leading to plenty of chances for defensive rebounds for the home team. Ohio State out-rebounded Illinois 40-28 overall by the time the final buzzer sounded.
Okpara does it on both ends to start the second half
Already up a dozen, the Buckeyes opened the second half with an alley-oop slam from Sueing to Okpara to push the lead out to 43-29 just 17 seconds into the half. On the ensuing Illinois possession, Dainja was met at the rim by Okpara, who swatted his layup to the corner where Sueing was able to grab it and run back up the court. Okpara ended the game with four points over eight total minutes.
Shannon cuts the lead to four
Trailing 45-35 with about 16 minutes remaining in the game, Shannon dropped in layups on back-to-back possessions and was fouled on both, completing the three-point play each time. This quickly pulled Illinois back within four points, 45-41. Shannon only scored two in the first half, but quickly pulled it together in the second half and was causing a ton of problems for Ohio State. Shannon finished the game with 10 points on 3-12 shooting over 29 minutes. He had four rebounds and two assists, but also had four turnovers.
Sensabaugh baptizes Mayer, gives Ohio State some breathing room
Illinois had cut the Ohio State lead to just three points with just over six minutes remaining, but Sensabaugh quickly gave his team some breathing room with a highlight reel dunk.
Hawkins turned the ball over below Illinois’ basket and Sueing collected it and found a streaking Sensabaugh headed down the court. He slammed it down over the head of Mayer, and then stood over Illinois’ senior forward and let out a scream. Sensabaugh scored on the next possession as well to put Ohio State up 59-52 with 5:24 remaining.
Sensabaugh had a tough start to the game, hitting three of his first nine shots, but finished by hitting his final two shots and finished with 14 points over 28 minutes. He also had six rebounds, two assists, one block, and three turnovers.
Sueing with the steal, bucket to ice it
With 3:00 remaining and Ohio State up 64-56, Likekele was double-teamed below the basket and turned it over. Ty Rodgers tore up the court and got the ball to Mayer, but Sueing picked his pocket at the last second and stole it, followed by a behind-the-back pass to Sensabaugh to keep it inbounds below the Illinois basket. Sueing then scored at the other end to give Ohio State a 10-point lead once again, 66-56, with just over two minutes remaining.
Sueing recorded his first double-double of the season with 14 points and 11 rebounds over 37 minutes. He also had two assists, a block, and a steal. He did not turn the ball over.
Ohio State (12-17, 4-14) will honor their seniors Wednesday night against Maryland (20-9, 11-7) — the final home game of the season. While Ohio State is almost certainly locked in to the 13-seed in the Big Ten Tournament, the Terrapins are still fighting for a top-four seed and the coveted double-bye, so they have quite a bit to play for. Ohio State’s game with Maryland tips off at 7:00 p.m. ET and will be broadcast on BTN.