Illinois 75, Ohio State 70
CHAMPAIGN - With Illinois basketball, it never seems easy.
Illinois blew a 15-point first half lead and trailed with under four minutes left Sunday against Ohio State. But the Illini (11-4, 1-1 Big Ten) eked out a stressful but much-needed Big Ten win over Ohio State (10-4, 0-1 Big Ten).
Illinois returned home for a game for the first time in 22 days, and the home cooking tasted delicious early for Illinois. The Illini used a 19-2 run in the first half to take a 15-point lead -- and eventually a 40-29 halftime lead, a nice response following a 25-point loss at Maryland in the Big Ten opener.
But the Buckeyes bounced back by scoring on eight straight possessions in the second half to trim the deficit to 50-48.
Ohio State led 64-63 with 3:54 left, but Illinois got back-to-back threes from Michael Finke and Jalen Coleman-Lands to take it lead it sealed at the free-throw line and on defense. Ohio State made just four of its last 15 shots.
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1742416-werner-good-luck-pre... The Illini also controlled the glass most of the game, out-rebouning the Buckeyes 42-35. Leron Black pulled down a career-high 15 rebounds.
The Illini also received a good contribution from its bench, outscoring Ohio State's bench 25-9. Finke scored 12 points on 5-for-7 shooting, while Maverick Morgan added 11 points and six rebounds.
JaQuan Lyle led Ohio State with 26 points (10-for-18 FG, 4-for-5 three), while Kam Williams an Marc Loving each added 10.
The win prevented Illinois from falling to 0-2 to start Big Ten play for the third straight season and also snapped a six-game losing streak for John Groce against his mentor Thad Matta, whom Groce served as an assistant for four seasons in Columbus.
What it means
Though it wasn't pretty, Illinois protected home court, something it must do to have a chance at the Big Dance. The Illini are only one game over .500 during Big Ten play during John Groce's career (19-18). To be a successful program, that home record should be closer to .750. Despite an ugly loss at Maryland, this win puts Illinois where most would've expected them to be. But it'd be nice for them to get ahead rather than just tread water. With a daunting January schedule, that'll be difficult though for an inconsistent team.
What went right
Illinois scored when it needed. Hill got buckets (and to the free-throw line) when Illinois needed them -- and many of them came at the rim, a rarity for this team. Abrams shot 5-for-6 from two with most of them coming on contested drives to the bucket. Coleman-Lands and Finke hit big shots in crunch time. The offense played pretty well against a good defensive team.
The Illini were physical and won a lot of 50-50 balls. Black was a monster on the boards, and the Illini blocked four shots.
Illinois had just nine turnovers, including just three in the second half. That's a welcome sight as it's just the second game of the season with single-digit turnovers.
Finke stepped up with a big bench performance. He scored three buckets in the paint early and then hit two crucial threes. Given his defensive deficiencies, Illinois needs him to be productive offensively. Morgan bounced back with a strong performance.
What went wrong
Illinois continues to struggle containing the dribble drive and the pick and roll. Lyle is a great player, but no team should score on eight straight possessions -- and so easily at the rim. Usually that will lead to a loss, and it has several times this season.
Black beasted on the boards, but he forced too many contested shots an finished the game 2-for-9 from the field.
Mike Thorne Jr. also was sloppy. He rushed shots and missed a bunny off a great feed from Abrams. Thorne can be unconscious some nights from the field. Others, he's wild and a possession killer. He's a bit of the roll of the dice, but that's why it's nice to have another competent center in Morgan.
Hill got into foul trouble, picking up his second with 6:08 left in the first half and his third with 19:19 left in the second half. But Illinois maintained and even extended its lead with Hill sitting out the final six minutes of the first half.
Illinois has six days off before traveling to Indiana on Saturday for a 4 p.m. tipoff at Assembly Hall. The Hoosiers (10-4) have lost back-to-back games to Nebraska (at home) and Louisville (neutral), and they host Wisconsin on Tuesday. They are a bit inconsistent with two top-10 wins over Kansas and North Carolina but also two losses to teams outside the KenPom top-75: Nebraska and Fort Wayne. John Groce is 3-5 against Indiana, and the Illini have lost four straight in Bloomington. The last time Illinois won at Assembly Hall, Mike Tisdale led the Illini with 27 points -- in a 66-60 win on Jan. 9, 2010.