It wasn’t always pretty, but Ohio State did enough to move to 2-0 in Big Ten play.
After a sloppy first half that saw the Buckeyes (10-5, 2-0) shoot just 32 percent, Ohio State surged to a 75-73 win, scraping past Illinois (8-7, 0-2) Sunday thanks to the late-game efforts of Marc Loving.
After holding a lead for the final six minutes of the first half and the 15:05 of the second, the Buckeyes nearly let the game slip away. A 10-0 run from Illinois allowed it to take a 61-59 advantage.
The spurt, punctuated by a three from Michael Finke, coincided with a stretch of five missed field goals for the Buckeyes. Ohio State’s scoring drought of 3:36 was ended when Loving got in the lane for a dunk to knot things at 61 with 4:16 left.
After an empty possession the Loving followed with a three to give the Buckeyes the lead for good and hit a free throw on the next possession, using a personal 6-0 run to give the Buckeyes a 65-61 cushion.
“We stayed together as a team and that was the biggest part,” JaQuan Lyle said. “I think when they went on that run, we kind of started pointing fingers at each other, but then we huddled and was like, ‘We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do.’ We all stepped up, Marc made a big-time 3 and everybody made plays on the defensive end and we got the ‘W.’”
Though Illinois would cut the lead to one possession four times down the stretch, Ohio State would not surrender the lead as they answered with points on every occasion.
The Buckeyes were clinging to a 72-70 advantage after a three from Jalen Coleman-Lands and as he did all night, Loving came through, hitting a pair of free throws to push the lead back to four with just 6.6 seconds remaining. Malcolm Hill cut the lead back to one with a three with 1.9 seconds remaining and again Loving answered, this time hitting one free throw and Hill’s heave at the buzzer was off the mark.
“Marc was very very efficient tonight,” head coach Thad Matta said. “He had a huge three in the corner, but also was able to put the ball down on the floor, got to the foul line. Marc has had a really, really good focus the last few games and as your lone upper classmen on a basketball team you hope that that’s something that we can continue to ride out.”
Loving led all scorers with a career-high 27 as the Buckeyes excelled at the free-throw line and in the paint in a game that was defined by fouls. The two teams combined to commit 41 fouls on the night, but Ohio State capitalized by hitting 28 of 39 free throws (71.2 percent) while the Illini attempted just 11, hitting nine.
“We’ve got to do a better job of playing hard without fouling,” Illinois coach John Groce said while reiterating multiple times that his team entered the game ranked No. 11 in defensive free throw rate.
Loving, who was forced to the bench with his fourth foul with 9:01 remaining in the game, paced the Buckeyes at the charity stripe, hitting 14 of 19 attempts. The junior reentered the game when Illinois pulled within one at 58-59 before scoring six straight.
The forward said that getting to the line helped him stay aggressive throughout the night.
“Just being able to get a rhythm, being able to see the ball go through the basket early,” Loving said. “An uncontested shot, it’s a great thing to be able to see the ball go through the rim early.”
Lyle joined Loving in double figures, scoring all 14 of his points in the second half. Keita Bates-Diop added 11 points with nine rebounds while Kam Williams had 10. In a career-high 18 minutes of action, all in the first half, A.J. Harris finished with two points and five rebounds.
Daniel Giddens led a stout group inside with five blocked shots as the team finished with nine.
Ohio State started slow, falling behind 6-0 at the start as the Buckeyes opened the game on a 5:02 field goal drought and saw starting point guard Lyle commit two fouls in the games first two minutes, forcing him to the bench for the rest of the half and allowing Harris to run the offense.
Matta’s bunch kept things close with free throws before Jae’Sean Tate hit the team’s first field goal with on a nice drive. That field goal was the start of a 12-0 run for Ohio State that featured seven made free throws from the Buckeyes in a foul-heavy contest.
The Buckeyes 12-0 run, which lasted 5:12 and saw Illinois miss seven shots and commit two turnovers, was extended to an 18-2 spurt that gave Ohio State a 10-point lead at 18-8 with 10:38 until half.
The Illini would regain the lead thanks to a 11-0 run of their own. The teams traded scored before Bates-Diop free throws gave the Buckeyes a 22-21 advantage they wouldn’t surrender until late in the second half.
The Buckeyes controlled the boards, hauling in 41 to Illinois’ 33. Bates-Diop paced the Buckeyes with nine while Tate and Loving each had seven. Ohio State scored 30 points in the paint in the win.