Ohio State 68, Illinois 63 OT
CHAMPAIGN - Take out the middle 30 minutes of regulation, and the Illini dominated. So there’s that.
But the Illini lost the final five overtime minutes 10-5 as Ohio State (14-8, 6-3 Big Ten) sent Illinois (10-11, 2-6) to its third home conference loss in four games -- and further to the realization that, barring some miracle turnaround, the Illini will miss their third straight NCAA Tournament.
A late run to force overtime proved a winning script for the Illini on Saturday in a 76-71 overtime win at Minnesota. That same script proved fruitless on Thursday at home against the Buckeyes.
Illinois won the first 6:12 by a score of 13-2. They won the last 7:03 of regulation by a score of 15-3. They lost the middle 30 minutes by a score of 53-30.
Ohio State outrebounded Illinois 51-38. Both teams shot under 40 percent: Ohio State 39 percent, Illinois 32 percent. The Illini made 9 of 29 from three, while the Buckeyes went 7-for-23 from three.
For the second straight game against Ohio State, free throws doomed the Illini.
In the Illini’s 75-73 loss in Columbus on Jan. 3, the Illini allowed Ohio State to shoot 39 free throws (the Buckeyes made 28) while the Illini made just nine from the charity stripe.
The Illini earned way more attempts than the Buckeyes (31 to 13) on Thursday but missed too many (18-for-31) to pull off a furious comeback bid.
Kendrick Nunn led the Illini with 24 points on 7-for-15 shooting (5-for-11 three). Malcolm Hill added 12 points and eight rebounds, and Jalen Coleman-Lands had 11 points.
Keita Bates-Diop (15 points, 12 rebounds) and Marc Loving (11 ponts, 10 rebounds) each notched double-doubles. Trevor Thompson led the Buckeyes with 16 points
Feeding off the energy of the Orange Krush -- which has only been at three of 11 “home” games due to winter break (last four games) and SFC renovations (first four games were in Springfield) -- the Illini took a quick 13-2 lead with 13:48 left in the first half.
At that point, Illinois was shooting 5-for-9 and had five rebounds, equal to OSU on the boards.
Over the rest of the half, Illinois shot 2-for-16, were outrebounded 25-8 and trailed on the scoreboard 29-24.
The Illini went 10 minutes and a second without making a basket -- a quarter of the game! -- with Ohio State going on a 20-7 run during that time (all of Illinois’ points came at the free-throw line).
Illini coach John Groce is now 1-6 under his former mentor, Ohio State coach Thad Matta.
What it means
The renovated State Farm Center is more appealing to the eye after a facelift, but the basketball team that plays inside is in need of some restoration as well.
The Illini offense was hideous, their effort on the backboards decrepit.
The calls for the end of the John Groce will grow louder and more intense. And the argument against that is getting weaker and weaker, even if there still is no permanent athletic director in place to make that decision. Injuries undoubtedly have hurt the Illini and probably did crush any Illini NCAA Tournament hopes. But the Illini’s issues are deeper than just injuries.
After the game, Groce said he was proud of his team's toughness and grit. Sure, they show those -- in spurts. But moral victories aren't acceptable at this level -- not in Year Four. It's about winning games and his team isn't winning enough -- even for his depleted roster.
The most glaring issue of this season, and most of his tenure, is execution. For most of this season, it's been on defense. Lately, the Illini have too many long runs of bad decision-making on offense.
Illinois is now 16-15 at home during Big Ten play under John Groce. The State Farm Center is no longer a venue opponents fear. Illinois is no longer an opponent that teams fear. They are out-toughed, out-executed and out-talented. They are a bottom-tier Big Ten team, no better -- if not worse -- than when Groce arrived.
What went right
The Illini locked in defensively for most of the night, allowing them to both keep the game close despite the putrid offense and make the furious comeback. Nunn shook off a three-game mini-slump, showing energy and aggression from the opening tip. Coleman-Lands led a furious comeback with eight points in the final 6:08 of regulation. Illinois again won the turnover battle 14-10. They showed some competitive toughness late in the game.
What went wrong
Jae’Sean Tate again bothered Malcolm Hill, who is now 7-for-27 in two games this season against the Buckeyes. The Illini can’t win without a star contribution from its All-Big Ten candidate.
The Maverick Morgan-Michael Finke “Rebound Game” -- 23 combined at Minnesota -- was a fluke. Against a good team with athletic rebounders, the two combined for just seven rebounds as the Illini were crushed on the glass. Morgan (eight points, five rebounds) had a few “tough” moments but not enough, and went 2-for-6 from the free-throw line.
Meanwhile, Finke struggled with Ohio State’s length and athleticism, finishing with just six points (2-for-8 FG, 1-for-5 three) and two rebounds. He was a minus-18 in the box score, the low in the game.
In the second half, the Illini took bad shots -- early in the shot clock, contested and no ball movement -- on huge possessions. With a short bench, the Illini staff isn’t punishing players for bad shots.
Adding to the offensive woes, the Illini were woeful from the free-throw line.
Star of the game
Keita Bates-Diop: The Normal, Ill., native was a painful recruiting miss for the Illini in the Class of 2014. To the Illini, he made painful shots, pulled down painful rebounds and swatted painful blocks (three). He also made the painful bump of Hill on the final possession (wasn’t called for a foul) that put the nail in the Illini’s coffin.
The Illini host Wisconsin for a 6:30 p.m. tipoff on Sunday. After dropping several close games to start the conference season (four losses by six or fewer points), the Badgers (12-9, 4-4 Big Ten) are finding their stride under interim head coach Greg Gard. Wisconsin has won three straight, including home wins over two top-25 teams (Michigan State and Indiana). At Illinois, Groce is 0-5 against Wisconsin.