Ohio State looked like they would run the Fighting Illini out of the gym early, but the 3,483 at Value City Arena ended up with a nearly 40-minute battle.
The Buckeyes (18-1, 6-0) scored the first 10 points and had a 15-point advantage, 21-6, after Samantha Prahalis made a pair of free throws with 10:23 on the first-half clock.
Fighting Illini and Ohio natives Karisma Penn and Macie Blinn struck back with back-to-back scores - a jumper by Penn and a three-pointer play by Blinn - to cut the lead to 10, but just as easily Ohio State restored its 15-point advantage with a Prahalis layup and a three-pointer by Brittany Johnson.
At halftime, Ohio State led 37-25 thanks in large part to its defense. The Illini (11-5, 3-3) shot just 22.2 percent (8 for 36) in the opening half, but the visitors managed to stay within shouting distance thanks to 11 offensive rebounds they turned into six second-chance points.
With a gameplan to double team Ohio State star center Jantel Lavender hard every time she touched the ball, the Illini also managed to keep the Buckeyes from destroying them down low, as they had done when Lavender scored 31 in Ohio State's 76-47 win in Champaign on Dec. 28.
The Buckeyes' answer was to bomb away from beyond the arc. Lavender found Johnson wide open downtown in right corner for the game's first basket, and that turned out to be the first of five first-half treys for Ohio State. Johnson was 2 for 2 while Prahalis, Tayler Hill and Sarah Schulze also connected from deep.
"They came out and were packing the lane in," said Lavender, who scored 12 points and grabbed nine rebounds. "I saw early opportunities for the guards and the wings to shoot three-point shots. I saw the double-teams coming early so I tried to get it out quick in the first half because I knew they were coming super hard in the paint. They were physical double-teams, too, so I was just trying to make sure I made good passes so the guards could get good shots."
Added Prahalis, "I think on screens they were going under so the screen so the shot was wide open. Then on doubles Jantel was finding us on the perimeter so it was open for us."
Illinois dominated the first four minutes of the second half by going on the attack.
The Illini scored 12 of the first 15 points after the break to draw within three, 40-37, when Jenna Smith hit a three-pointer at the 16:09 mark.
Ohio State soon stretched its advantage back to nine, but Lydia McCully made it look as if Illinois might reel the Buckeyes back in when she made a trey with 10:11 to go. That cut the Ohio State lead to six and set the stage for a Buckeye senior and old Illinois nemesis to deliver two daggers in a 28-second span to give the hosts some breathing room.
Guard Maria Moeller, who played 15 important minutes off the bench, drilled back-to-back three-pointers, the first one from the right wing and the second from the top of the key, to stretch the Ohio State lead back to a dozen with 9:24 left.
Prahalis set up both shots, the second after a baseline drive that seemed to have her trapped beneath the basket before she spotted Moeller.
Safe to say, Illinois head coach Jolette Law has seen enough of Moeller. The Maria Stein (Ohio) Marion Local product made a last-second trey to beat Law's team in the same building two years ago, and the coach has not forgotten.
"She's one of the X-factors on their team," Law said. "She's improved her three-point shot extremely well, and it's even gotten further out. It's like she's got four-point range. We didn't take her for granted. She just stepped up and made some big shots."
Moeller's shots seemed to take some wind out of the sails of the Illini, but they did not quit. They got within six on two occasions, but both times the Buckeyes turned them back.
After a short jump shot by guard Whitney Toone cut the Illinois deficit to 63-57 with 3:55 showing on the clock, Moeller found Walker for an acrobatic reverse layup then Hill stepped in the passing lane for a steal she threw ahead to Prahalis for a fast-break bucket.
With that, Ohio State quickly was up 10 again, and the Buckeyes cruised the rest of the way, which please head coach Jim Foster.
"I thought we did a good job," he said, particularly liking the final three-point line for his team: 9 for 18. "I thought Sammy had some terrific moves and baskets. I think it was very, very physical in the post. A lot of banging, so we had to shoot more on the perimeter, and I think we did a very god job of it. Then at the end that loosened up a little bit inside and we were pounding the ball inside and getting some good shots."
Penn, a 6-2 forward, was tough in defeat. The Shaker Heights product, who did not make a field goal the first time she faced Ohio State this season, finished with 21 points and eight rebounds. She also blocked two shots.
Toone added 12 while McCully had 10.