Loving Sparks Buckeyes Past Illini

Marc Loving scored eight points during a 12-0 run from the Ohio State bench that helped seal a 48-39 win against Illinois on Saturday. Ohio State has won three road games in a row and Loving broke a streak of six consecutive games without a field goal.

As the game clock ticked down to less than four minutes remaining in the second half, Ohio State sophomore guard Amedeo Della Valle fidgeted as he made his way from the baseline towards the top of the perimeter, hugging the sideline next to the OSU bench.

He looked up multiple times, his gaze fixed upon the scoreboard high above midcourt while the Buckeyes ran their offense and drew closer to victory with each second. The clock ran and ran, and Della Valle stole a couple more glances at the clock before senior point guard Aaron Craft hoisted a jumper that ballooned OSU's lead over Illinois to 12 points at the under-four media timeout of what ultimately became a 48-39 win.

The second half had been an exercise in futility for OSU's opponent – the Fighting Illini scored just six points over the first 16 minutes of that period – but Ohio State didn't fare much better in the shooting department. Even with a lead larger than Illinois' second-half output to that point, the Buckeyes still didn't feel victory had been secured – and it showed.

"I would say I didn't think it was over until there was about 10 seconds left and we had the ball," OSU freshman forward Marc Loving said.

Craft led the Buckeyes (20-6 overall, 7-6 Big Ten) with 14 points and three steals, and junior forward LaQuinton Ross followed with nine points and six boards.

Ohio State ultimately had its defense to thank for the win. The Buckeyes absolutely suffocated the Illini, holding the hosts to 28.3 percent shooting. Junior guards Tracy Abrams (13 points) and Rayvonte Rice (11 points) each reached double figures for Illinois (14-12, 3-10) but both launched 10 or more shots in the process.

OSU's defensive domination came in both halves, as Illinois didn't crack the 30 percent threshold in either frame. It also marked the third time the Buckeyes had held an opponent under 40 points this season.

"Our offense was anemic today," said Illinois coach John Groce, who served as an OSU assistant from 2004-08. "I thought Ohio State had a lot to do with that. I thought they imposed their will on the defensive end."

Of course, the Buckeyes also benefitted from a resurgent performance by Loving, who had been held without a field goal for six games in a row heading into the contest. The Toledo native accounted for eight points, all of which came in the second half as OSU began to pull away.

"When that ball went through for him, I was so excited," Buckeyes head coach Thad Matta said. "I told him in practice it was going to happen. You could see 1,000 pounds lifted off of him. We've seen Marc do that a lot in practice. For him to come in here and have that type of performance, hopefully it's something we can add to our basketball team."

Loving's burst put a bow on a huge run by the OSU bench that turned a 30-29 lead into a 42-29 advantage over the course of nearly eight minutes. After junior center Trey McDonald opened the stretch with a dunk and Della Valle followed with basket on the next possession, Loving went to work.

He drained back-to-back jumpers to break a four-game drought with no points and then hit a pair of free throws before sinking another shot to extend the advantage to a baker's dozen.

"He was huge," Craft said of his freshman teammate. "He's done that since he stepped on campus, and it's great to see it paying off now. But we're going to keep him humble, too. We have five games left and we can't be inconsistent down the stretch."

An increased presence from players off the bench proved critical, as a trio of starters in Sam Thompson, Lenzelle Smith and Amir Williams combined for just eight points in 75 minutes of court time.

The win may have helped exorcise some demons in the State Farm Center, which had dealt back-to-back losses to the Buckeyes in its former days as Assembly Hall. Two years ago, Brandon Paul netted 43 points to give the Illini a 79-74 triumph, but OSU's struggles in the arena came to a quick halt Saturday night.

Ohio State found itself in the familiar position of heading into a hostile arena while trying to pick itself up from defeat. The Buckeyes reeled off back-to-back away wins against ranked opponents to open February, knocking off Wisconsin and Iowa in succession to bounce back from a stretch in which they dropped five of six games.

That streak continued against the Illini, and Loving noted that good things have followed lately when the Buckeyes leave Value City Arena.

"On the road, we combine more as one," he said. "We play tough defense, we get out in transition, finish and make plays. It's just all about playing basketball.

"It's a tough place to play in, and I feel like getting a victory here is a step forward. Hopefully, we can take this victory and just keep moving forward."

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