The 18th-ranked Fighting Illini twice led by as many as 17 points early in the second half and still maintained a 14-point advantage with nine minutes left. But Ohio State made the Illini earn the championship.
The Buckeyes, behind a late surge powered by Terence Dials and Ivan Harris, trimmed the gap down to one on a Tony Stockman three-pointer with 6.2 seconds left. When Illinois' Deron Williams missed the front end of a one-and-one one second later, OSU point guard Brandon Fuss-Cheatham was off to the races on a chance to win the game.
But Fuss-Cheatham lost control on a drive to the basket, no foul was called and Illinois escaped Value City Arena with a hard fought 64-63 win as well as the outright Big Ten title.
"I am pleased for our guys and for the league," OSU coach Jim O'Brien said. "They didn't just come in here and coast into the undisputed championship. We really made them earn it."
The Illini were buoyed by having several thousand fans among the 16,445 in attendance at Value City Arena. The win helped them wrap up their first outright Big Ten championship since 1952. After OSU‘s fans emptied the arena, the Illini had a celebration on the floor with their faithful.
Illinois (22-5, 13-3) had already clinched a share for the title with an overtime win at Purdue on Wednesday night. But they wanted more and got an outright title and the top seed in next weekend's Big Ten tournament. They got it after winning their 10th straight game.
"Nothing comes easy for us," said Illini coach Bruce Weber. "Nothing has come easy all year. We were 1-2 and 3-3 and a lot of people doubted us. But they kept saying `Big Ten champs' at every huddle at practice, at games or whatever. 11-1 later, here we are.
"We didn't play perfect basketball at the end of the game, but I guess we had enough points to win the game by one."
The defeat means Ohio State (14-15, 6-10) must win at least two games at the Big Ten tournament to assure themselves of finishing .500 or better and extend their string of postseason appearances to six years. OSU will open Big Ten tournament play against eighth-seeded Indiana (13-14, 7-9) at noon Thursday at Indianapolis' Conseco Fieldhouse.
A win would put the Buckeyes in a Friday quarterfinal match-up with -- you guessed it -- Illinois.
Dee Brown led Illinois with 18 points, while Williams had 14 and Luther Head scored 13.
"We probably got on our heels a little bit," Weber said. "We kept saying, `Don't watch the clock, just play.' "
Dials had 12 of his game-high 22 points in the final seven minutes to fuel OSU's late comeback. He also grabbed nine rebounds.
"They were probably not trying to foul at the end of the game," said Dials, who was 7 of 9 from the floor and 8 of 10 at the foul line. "I just tried to take it at them and take advantage of that."
Stockman added 13 points, while Harris scored all eight of his points in a 4-½ minute stretch of the second half to start the late rally.
"Once I got in there, I just wanted to hustle and play good defense," said Harris, a seldom used freshman who didn't see action in Wednesday's win over last-place Penn State. "Then, at the end we just tried to get it to Terence. He made four straight baskets down there on the block."
The Buckeyes were dangling by a thread for much of the first half, when they hit just 23.8 percent of their shots from the floor (5 of 21). Luckily, they did make 10 of 12 free throws to only trail 34-22 at the intermission.
Illinois came out firing as James Augustine tipped in his own miss, Head had a jam on an alley oop from Brown and Brown canned a three-pointer in transition to stake the Illini to a 7-0 lead just 1:14 into the game.
Stockman answered with a three-pointer at the other end and OSU still trailed 12-7 after he made a pair of free throws with 13:28 left. This is when the Illini got hot and went on a 18-5 run, keyed by two three-pointers from Williams and one each from Brown and Head, to go up 30-14 with 6:57 left.
Ohio State rallied with six straight points, including a spinning bank shot by Velimir Radinovic, to cut the lead to 30-20 with 3:25 left.
But the Illini went into the intermission with a 34-22 lead after Head's 12-foot jumper in the lane with 59 seconds left.
Illinois quickly extended the lead to 17 at 44-27 after Head completed a three-point play off an OSU turnover and Brown nailed a three-pointer from the top of the key with 15:07 left. The Illini maintained that lead a minute later as Augustine made a layup inside for a 46-29 lead with 14:10 left.
But this is when Harris came on and made his presence felt. He hit a pair of three-pointers and a 16-foot jumper from the top to help OSU cut the gap down to 52-41 with 9:17 left.
Dials then made a pair of turnaround shots in the lane, the second one paring the gap to 57-49 with 6:18 left.
After a steal by Harris, OSU got the lead down to six at 61-55 on Dials' turning bank shot with 3:35 left. Head then missed a three. OSU took the shot clock down. Finally, Fuss-Cheatham elevated for a shot but was covered. He flipped the ball to Stockman whose rainbow three from 24 feet beat the shot clock, brought the house down and cut the lead to 61-58 with 2:33 left.
"You could feel the momentum shifting," Dials said. "Tony hit that big shot with the shot clock going down. I thought it was our game to be had."
But Illinois hung tough. Brown answered with a jumper in the lane to make it 63-58 with two minutes left. OSU then took a timeout and devised an alley oop off the inbounds play. Stockman's pass to Dials was high, but he tipped it in to again cut it to three at 63-60 with 1:44 left.
Brown then missed a 16-footer and Dials rebounded with 44 seconds left. But OSU lost possession when Ricardo Billings' lob pass to Dials was deflected away by Augustine. Williams was fouled, but he made just 1 of 2 free throws to up the lead to 64-60 with 16.5 seconds left.
But, again, Stockman came up big as he hit a huge three-pointer from the top of the key with 6.2 seconds left to trim the margin to 64-63.
OSU's Nick Dials fouled Williams on the inbounds play with 5.2 seconds left. But his front end clanged off the iron to Terence Dials, who outletted to Fuss-Cheatham. OSU was out of timeouts and had to get a shot up quick.
Fuss-Cheatham sped into the frontcourt and went down the left side of the lane. But the 6-10 Augustine walled him off. Just before the buzzer, the 6-1 Fuss-Cheatham went up for a shot. He appeared to lose control and the ball skitted by Augustine out of bounds as the buzzer sounded and no foul was called.
O'Brien glared at officials Ted Hillary, Ed Hightower and Rick Hartzell as they left the floor.
"(There was) no time, no timeouts," O'Brien said. "We planned on Williams making both shots. We set something up to get a three. If he misses and we're not down by three, we had to get the ball up the floor. We needed somebody to make a play and there was only five seconds. That's how games get won sometimes when it is wide open and chaotic."
O'Brien was asked for his opinion on the non-call.
"I thought he got fouled," the coach said. "I looked at it after the game on tape and, of course, I am looking at it through tinted glasses. I thought he got fouled. But that was a tough call in defense of the officials. My general philosophy is you don't want to end the game for somebody.
"We talk about verticality. Clearly, there was contact. Augustine was like this," O'Brien said, with his arms stretched in front of him. "In most cases, that would be a foul."
With 52 years of futility on the line, Augustine was glad they didn't nail him.
"I stepped to the side and put my hands up and he just lost the ball," Augustine said. "I just cringed and waited for the whistle."
* The Illini now hold a 99-59 advantage in games played against Ohio State since the schools began competition in 1915. The Buckeyes are 21-58 in Champaign, 37-39 in Columbus and 1-2 at neutral sites. The Buckeyes are 10-33 against Illinois teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25.
The win was also Illinois' fourth straight against OSU.
* Ohio State ended the season 0-8 against teams ranked in the top 50 nationally by collegerpi.com. OSU's biggest home win was a 72-64 win over Northwestern, just 99th in RPI.
* OSU fell to 9-7 at home and 8-7 inside Value City Arena (one game was played at Nationwide Arena).
* Radinovic and fellow seniors Shun Jenkins and Shaun Smith were saluted before the final home game.
Radinovic finished with six points (on 2 of 2 shooting from the floor) and six rebounds.
* Guard J.J. Sullinger was 1 of 9 from the floor with five points in 22 minutes.
* OSU perked up in the second half and made 15 of its 23 shots (65.2 percent) from the floor, The Buckeyes made 12 of their last 13 shots from the floor, including their last nine.
* Dials eclipsed his previous scoring high of 19 points, set against Indiana.