Illinois regained its shooting eye after a lengthy dry spell, but it had little chance from the outset against an inspired Ohio State team.
"When they lost to Purdue, you knew they would come ready to play," Illini coach Bruce Weber admitted. "I hoped maybe we'd catch them a little off guard, but they played at a high level."
The Buckeyes can score from all five positions. With the Illini trying to keep freshman superstar Jared Sullinger contained, the perimeter players found many open looks. For the first time in 37 games, the Illini were unable to hold their opponent under 50% shooting. The last to do it, Ohio State last year.
"They have a lot of weapons," said Weber. "We were afraid of their perimeter guys getting going, and they did it right away. (William) Buford in the first half, (Jon) Diebler a couple spot-ups in the first half. I thought we did a decent job on Sullinger."
The Illini couldn't or wouldn't fight through screens, giving Buckeye wing players open looks. When they did guard, the quicker Buckeyes sped by them for drives and dish-offs. Even then, a Demetri McCamey three brought the Illini to within three late in the first half. Weber described what happened next.
"We had played pretty solid. It was 33-30. Mike Davis took a quick shot, D.J. (Richardson) took a quick shot, somebody else took a quick shot. Three straight turnovers and you're down 12. Then you're catching up the whole time."
Turnovers sealed the Illini's fate. Nine first half miscues led to an 18-0 Buckeye advantage in points off turnovers. For the game, the Illini committed 16 turnovers leading to 25 unanswered OSU points. In contrast, the Bucks caressed the ball, committing only three turnovers.
McCamey scored 15 points and added 6 assists. But Weber reminded he was equally careless with the ball.
"I thought Demetri played better, he played with energy. But you can't have five turnovers. That's just too many. Jereme (Richmond) had three, Mike Tisdale had three. Somehow, we've got to cut those down."
The Illini have been plagued with poor shot selection all year. Knowing when to run offense and when to shoot is a lost art on the UI campus. When you need a basket, you don't put up a quick three without running offense to get a better look. You value the ball and make sound passes. Weber let his frustrations show afterward.
"It just makes me so mad because you have to play smart basketball. We're playing one of the best basketball programs, and we come down and shoot, shoot, shoot. Turnovers, turnovers. So you let them off the hook.
"You can go 35 seconds and not even take a shot, and it would be better than what you did. Now they're going. Hopefully we learn sometime before it's over."
The big OSU rally, outscoring the Illini 14-2 to end the half, was repeated when the UI fought back to within 49-43 on a Crandall Head reverse layin. This time, senior leader Lighty was a one man band. He scored 13 straight Buckeye points including 9 in a row, aided by three of his six steals on the night. By the time Tisdale responded with a dunk, the Illini were down 14. That was the game.
For those who say Weber is stubborn and won't change his ways, a new defensive approach to start the second half helped for awhile.
"We played a triangle and two, just a different look. They struggled with it a little bit. We made the run to cut it to six, but they got seven straight points off of turnovers. Now you couldn't get back into the defense because you can't stop layups. They picked up their defense."
That's what good teams do, and the Buckeyes are an outstanding team wanting desperately to get a win. They responded to every Illini push. Their 19 point victory was well deserved.
Weber gave Head his first start of the year, sitting McCamey and Richardson. Richardson has been in a slump, and he endured the coach's wrath in the pregame shoot-around after taking the activity too lightly. Head was tight in the first half, but he settled down and played better when he got his chance in the second stanza.
"He's actually played pretty good in practice as of late. We just thought, 'Give us a boost.' If you don't start him, you're always afraid to put him in later. I thought he was okay the first time. Second half he actually made some nice plays. Lighty picked his pocket to get them on their run in that stretch."
Davis led the Illini with 18 points and 7 rebounds. Tisdale had his best effort in several games, hitting four threes en route to 14 points. He had five boards and three blocks. Richmond had 11 points, 9 caroms and 5 assists in a good overall game.
Meanwhile, Lighty led the Bucks with 21, Buford had 17, Diebler 13, and Aaron Craft 12. Sullinger grabbed 11 rebounds to go with his 12 points. Overall, OSU had 9 steals off careless Illini ball handling.
The Illini can still make the NCAA Tournament field with home victories over Iowa and Indiana. But the big test now is Saturday evening against the Hawkeyes. Weber hopes enough true Illini fans show up to provide the support their bruised and battered team needs to put them over the top.
"We've got to get ready for Iowa. That's all that matters right now. I told them they're way better than when we played them. They beat Michigan State by 20. They beat Indiana by 15-20. They took Wisconsin to overtime. That's what you have to understand, and they're gonna have a week off getting ready for us.
"We need the crowd. I understand it's been frustrating, but if you're a true fan you come and cheer us on the way it should be. I hope it's louder in the Assembly Hall than it's been all year. That would be nice for everybody."