It was looking something like one of the few games Ohio State had under control from start to finish. But looks can be deceiving.
After leading Illinois comfortably for 35 minutes, the Buckeyes had to scramble towards the end of a 64-58 victory over the struggling Illini Tuesday evening in Columbus before an announced sold-out crowd.
Though there were not nearly 19,000 fannies in the seats, the sellout crowd experienced more than a few anxious moments when Illinois closed to within three points, 61-58, with just 30 seconds remaining.
However, David Lighty collected a key offensive rebound on a missed Kosta Koufos free throw, and calmly sank two free throws of his own, helping Ohio State pull away to the final margin.
It was fitting that Lighty’s heroic play toward the end cemented the Buckeye victory. The 6-5 sophomore, a member of last year’s heralded “Thad Five” that cruised all the way to the National Championship game, scored 16 points and added four assists for the Buckeyes in one of his best games all season.
The other hero, 6-4 freshman Evan Turner, continued his successful play in recent weeks with another 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting. Turner had 21 points and 10 rebounds in Saturday’s loss to Tennessee.
With the win, Ohio State (13-6, 4-2 Big Ten) stopped the bleeding of a three-game losing streak. It was the fifth consecutive victory over Illinois, started by 2005’s 65-64 upset victory over the 29-0 and No .1-ranked Illini team.
When Illinois pulled to within three, it was the closest the game had been since Ohio State led just 10-8 with 12:10 left in the first half. Though statistically the game was relatively even, the Buckeyes led by at least double-digits for over 12 minutes in the second half.
The late surge by Illinois (9-11, 1-6 Big Ten) over the game’s final six minutes was made in part by junior Rodney Alexander, who took over and scored 9 points of his team’s final 18. Alexander finished with 20 and a game-high 11 rebounds.
When Illinois Had the Ball
*Ohio State allowed Illinois several - too many in fact, open 3-point looks. Sharpshooter Trent Meacham took seven 3-pointers, many of which were uncontested shots in transition or simply off an extra pass. Despite a respectable 9-of-25 from outside the arc for the Illini, the Buckeyes survived thanks to several missed bunnies inside by Brian Randle.
*Making the Buckeyes’ defensive lapses even more surprising was the absence of senior center Shaun Pruitt. The 6-11 Pruitt was suspended for Tuesday night’s game because of an unnamed violation of team rules. In the previous between in Champaign a few weeks ago, Pruitt tantalized Ohio State with 12 points and eight rebounds. The missing big man gave Illinois little in the way of a legitimate post presence.
*The demeanor of junior college transfer Alexander was perhaps one of the few bright spots for Illinois for next season in what’s become a dismal season. In just 24 minutes of action, Alexander gave the Illini an offensive spark not seen much this year.
*Playing mostly a match-up zone, Ohio State still didn’t solve their defensive rebounding woes. On paper, a match-up zone should make locating, and consequently boxing out a man significantly easier. But that’s on paper. On Tuesday, Illinois still managed 17 offensive rebounds to just six for Ohio State. Illinois only out-rebounded the Buckeyes 33-29, but the numerous second and third chances nearly made up for shooting just 35 percent.
*Playing 31 minutes, freshman point guard and former high school teammate of Turner, Demetri McCamey got an opportunity to take over for Illinois but failed miserably. McCamey has showed flashes of promise in stints this season, but Tuesday struggled to the tune of 2 points (1-of-8 shooting) and three assists. He also had three turnovers.
When Ohio State Had the Ball
*Having played P.J. Hill, Matt Terwilliger and Jon Diebler nearly an entire four-minute segment in the first half, Ohio State, for one of the few times all season, was able to keep some starters a little fresher for the second half. It can be argued that this helped the Buckeyes avoid the typical wear-down that’s occurred midway through the second half. Though Illinois did ultimately mount a comeback, it appeared it was more because of offensive rebounds and Ohio State having some poor shot-selection down the stretch.
*The emergence of Turner continues to be a developing story for the Buckeyes. As Turner’s confidence explodes, if Lighty can also make a habit out of his offensive skills, the Buckeyes may finish the season on a high note. Up until now, the Buckeyes had no one outside of Jamar Butler providing a steady scoring punch. Turner and Lighty could take a lot of pressure off Butler, making Ohio State a much more dangerous team.
*While Turner is not lacking in any sort of confidence, two of his freshman cohorts cannot say the same. Koufos appears to be questioning himself before every shot he attempts and Jon Diebler, reduced to 13 minutes on Tuesday, is now showing signs of avoiding shots all together. Diebler took just one shot in those 13 minutes, whereas Koufos looks like he is now hesitating before every shot inside and outside – a problem for a guy that used to thrive on his ability to knock down shots on the perimeter. As this problem is not uncommon for freshmen, it’s troublesome for Ohio State simply because the Buckeyes are counting so heavily on production from both of them.
*Typically, assisting just 10 of 23 field goals would not necessarily be a very good sign for a team’s offensive execution. Though in this case, there does seem to be an exception. For the first time, Ohio State is beginning to recognize strengths and utilizing them more often. The ability to penetrate by Lighty, Turner and to a lesser extent, Butler, is creating more opportunities for Ohio State on offense. Teams are finding it increasingly difficult to stop dribble-drive situations by Ohio State’s younger wings, and as the defenses collapse, more backside passing situations open up and also more kick-out 3-pointers.
Ohio State is in the midst of its most beneficial portion of the schedule all year. Winnable Big Ten games remain over the next three weeks with road games against Penn State, Northwestern, Iowa and Michigan, and the toughest games in Columbus – Minnesota, Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin.
Winning six, seven or even eight of these games leaves the Buckeyes in a favorable position within the Big Ten standings, as well as a decent resume heading toward March. It’s also important Ohio State capitalizes on this stretch with road games against Minnesota and Indiana looming after that, followed by home games to finish the regular season against Purdue and Michigan State.
Saturday leaves Ohio State fans with their first look at one of the three newest Big Ten head coaches, Tubby Smith. Smith has Minnesota sitting in position to snare an NCAA bid this season if they can manage a few notable road victories – something that is still sorely lacking on their current resume.
Though Minnesota has dropped three Big Ten games thus far, Michigan State (twice) and Indiana, they have done so playing competitively, losing the three by an average of 5.3 points per game.
Much like Tuesday’s result, looks can certainly be deceiving.