After a pregame ceremony that featured former Illinois center Barack Obama being inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States, the No. 24/25 Fighting Illini controlled visiting Ohio State from the opening tip and cruised to a 67-49 victory in Assembly Hall.
The Buckeyes (13-4, 3-3 Big Ten) never led against Illinois (16-3, 4-2) and were unable to mount any sort of run while seeing their three-game win streak come to an end.
"It was odd because for whatever reason we didn't have the energy or whatever that we needed to be in this game tonight," OSU head coach Thad Matta said. "We weren't as ready as we needed to be to play and this is what happens when you play a great team."
Illinois entered the contest leading the conference in scoring defense while allowing an average of 57.0 points per game, and that pressure helped force the Buckeyes to commit a season-high 20 turnovers. Every player who suited up for OSU turned the ball over at least once, and each starter had at least two turnovers. Freshman center B.J. Mullens led the way with four.
After the game, Matta credited the Illinois defense for keeping OSU out of sync. From his perspective on the court, Mullens had a different opinion.
"They defended us just like everyone else," he said. "We just weren't hitting shots. We could've been on tonight. It wasn't the defensive pressure. It was just us."
Trailing 38-26 at the half, the Buckeyes were able to cut it to an eight-point deficit with 17:34 left as sophomore center Dallas Lauderdale neatly executed a hook shot with his right hand. Illinois would counter with a basket by forward Mike Davis to push the deficit back to double digits, and OSU would not get any closer from there.
Entering the game as OSU's leading scorer at 15.9 points per game, OSU sophomore swingman Evan Turner was never able to get on track in a return to his home state. Unable to get his shots to drop, the native of Chicago went just 2 of 7 from the field, finishing with a season-low four points.
It marked just the second time Turner scored fewer than 10 points in any contest this season.
"They just crowded the lane," he said. "When I went up I had a couple bodies, a couple hands in my face, and I just kicked it out. We got some good looks and we just didn't make shots, and after a while it turned into a West Virginia-type atmosphere, as far as we started going one-on-one too much."
The Buckeyes were just 4 of 15 (26.7 percent) from beyond the arc. The Illini had four scorers in double figures, with Mike Tisdale leading the way with 15 points. Illinois head coach Bruce Weber admitted after the game that they had seen things on film that showed them how to find soft spots in OSU's 3-2 match-up zone that his players were able to exploit.
"I think our big guys that are active and have nice touches bothered them because it spread them out," Weber said. "Now you've got five guys you've got to worry about. I think that caused some problems."
For an OSU squad that had just earned a hard-fought victory against then-No. 25 Michigan three days prior, this loss sent it back to the drawing board as the inability to answer Illinois' runs left the Buckeyes searching for answers. After the game, Matta stressed to his players – as he said he had during the week – that they could not get too high or too low regardless of what happens on the court.
"I tried to explain to them we're not even close to where we need to be in regards to how we're playing and that consistency," Matta said. "I don't know for sure if they were feeling that or whatever but I know they don't feel that anymore."
Illinois head coach Bruce Weber called timeout with 1:03 remaining, emptying his bench with his team ahead 67-49. A missed jumper by center Richard Semrau and a final OSU turnover helped set the score.
The Buckeyes were led by Mullens and freshman William Buford, who finished with 14 and 13 points, respectively. Mullens went 6 for 8 from the floor and punctuated his points with dunks, but he struggled from the charity stripe by going 2 of 9.
Until 2:55 remained in the first half, Buford was the lone Buckeye with more than one field goal. To that point, he had 11 of his team's 19 points until a Jeremie Simmons three-pointer made it 31-22 in favor of the Illini.
The reigning Big Ten player of the week would score just two points in the final 20 minutes as the Illini held on for the win.
"I think that the reality of the league that we're in right now is you better be real good every night," Matta said. "I think that was a decent lesson for them from the standpoint of it is every time you take the floor for every Big Ten game you play you've got to be ready."