Illinois played inspired ball despite some of its players having off days. It had an eight point lead middle of the second half, but Ohio State made the plays down the stretch and pulled out a hard-earned victory. Illini coach Bruce Weber was impressed with the Buckeyes.
"Ohio State is a very good team. They're better than I even thought. I think the best thing about them is they're so unselfish. If something's not going for one guy, they're smart enough to get the ball to the guy that can make a basket. It was probably the difference in the game."
As has happened frequently over the last four years with the Illini seniors, they got a good lead and then let down as the opponent reversed the momentum. Weber has tried to coax them out of this tendency, to no avail. He explains what happens.
"We hit points in the game where we watch the clock, we don't cut hard or move hard. Defenses pick up. They put their hands on you, they grab you, they hold you. Now you've got to react to it. It came back to haunt us.
You've got a lead, you've got to find a way to make plays. I don't think we're selfish as a team, but we try to hit home runs and grand slams with no one on base. Sometimes we don't make the simple play."
Ohio State coach Thad Matta described the same situation from the opposite perspective.
"We weren't as sharp as we need to be to start the second half. We got down 50-42, but these guys kept their composure. It all started on the defensive end for us. We had a bunch of guys make big plays."
Sullinger, the freshman man-mountain with the agility and ball skills of a much smaller player, destroyed the Illini with 27 points, 16 rebounds and 3 blocked shots. He spoke eloquently about three traits his team has in abundance and its tremendous senior leadership.
"Pride, heart and composure. We showed a lot of composure when they went up 42-50. We were able to turn that around on the road. Pride just to play defense. And heart, we just kept pushing. We kept coming at them.
"Our leadership is phenomenal, honestly. There's times where Dallas (Lauderdale) doesn't play as much, but Dallas is always talking to me. They're like other coaches. Sometimes you can't comprehend what our coaches say. But coming from somebody that's in your shoes and playing the same game that you are, it really helps you out and builds your confidence."
Mike Davis had the task of guarding Sullinger part of the game. He has even more respect for him now than previously. He was asked what makes him so special.
"Just the way he seals. He has a good drop step. They also find him. They run him off two screens. He's tough. He's bigger than I thought he was. He's a good player. We didn't do a good job of stopping him."
Matta was asked how Sullinger compared with three other post players who were first round NBA draft picks in his coaching era at OSU.
"He's obviously right there. He's probably the best that we've brought in, as far as the complete package. We've had some pretty good guys come through here. He's a special young man. His humility, he's all about winning. He just wants to win. That's what separates him."
It is assumed Illinois needs its point guard Demetri McCamey playing his best to defeat top foes. Unfortunately, McCamey had an off night with 5 points and 5 assists.
"He didn't play well, and he's been so good for us," Weber summarized. "He's our guy. We still found a way to stay close. I think it shows as a team how good we are because he's been the guy that's made us go.
"He got in a little funk, and instead of just making the easy pass to people when they're open, I think he just tried to keep making plays. (Aaron) Craft and the different guys got up on him and were wrestling with him. They fought him on the ball screen. That's the difference; if it's not there, make the next play, make the next pass.
"I thought Demetri played hard, he guarded. He really had good effort on defense. He was just in a funk offensively. He's 1-11, D.J. (Richardson) is 1-6, Brandon (Paul) is 3-11. Maybe play a little smarter and get the ball inside."
Jereme Richmond led the Illini with his first career double-double. He had 18 points and 10 boards, scoring most of his baskets on clever moves near the hoop. Mike Tisdale and Davis added 15 and 11 points respectively. They had too little support.
The Illini outshot the Buckeyes 43.1% to 39.6% from the floor, but they shot only 23.5 % from the arc compared with 46.7% for OSU. And the Buckeyes made 24 of 27 free throws to just 8 of 10 for the Illini.
Illinois usually shoots threes well, especially at home. Weber lamented the poor production from the arc Saturday.
"We didn't make the threes tonight. There were a lot of open threes, we just didn't make shots. At one point in the second half, we had a lead and missed four or five shots. It was probably the difference in the game."
The Illini had a chance to tie the game in the last seconds with a three. McCamey tried to pass inside to Tisdale, but the ball was tipped and recovered by the Buckeyes. Weber explains the play.
"We had a double ball screen. I asked in the huddle who wants to make the three, and Billy (Bill Cole) said he wanted it. Demetri's supposed to come off of the ball screen, Tis (Tisdale) flares for Billy. They did a good job switching it. We told them to take the two if we have to. It was knocked away, I thought he got fouled but didn't get a call. Then we have to foul."
The Illini are now 4-3 in the Big 10, with their next game Thursday at Indiana. Richmond, who is now letting loose and playing without thinking so much, was despondent afterward.
"Personally, I thought we had them the whole way. I'm kind of mad we lost right now. I'll be okay, and my teammates will do a good job of making sure I'm okay. But we've got to get some victories."