Final score: OSU 72, Illinois 53.
The victory puts OSU in a first-place tie with No. 10 Michigan State. The two will meet for the only time this season Feb. 21 in East Lansing. First for the Buckeyes, however, is a home contest Wednesday against No. 6 Purdue, which sits a half-game behind the Buckeyes and the Spartans.
"The bad thing about that is you're got Purdue coming in and then you go to Michigan State," OSU assistant coach Jeff Boals told the Ohio State Basketball Radio Network. "You enjoy it now. It's a good road win. You beat a great team like Illinois but you've got to get ready for Purdue coming in on Wednesday."
The Buckeyes (20-6, 10-3 Big Ten) seized control in the first half and withstood a second-half challenge from the Illini (17-9, 9-4) before blowing the game open near the midway point of the final stanza in earning their ninth straight Big Ten win.
After opening up a 20-point first-half lead, the Buckeyes found themselves facing a better-composed Illinois team in the second half. The Illini started forcing the ball inside and crawled their way back into the game, whittling the lead down to 13 points at the 16:02 mark. Getting there required a 10-3 run that stretched back into the first half.
It was as close as they would get, however, and the Buckeyes would slam the door about six minutes later.
Illinois guard D.J. Richardson converted a reverse layup – the first field goal from an Illinois guard all game – to make it 50-36 with 10:31 remaining and the crowd at Assembly Hall could smell a comeback brewing.
But junior forward David Lighty had a few things to say about that. Taking the ball near the top of the circle, Lighty took forward Dominique Keller off the dribble and knifed through the defense for a two-handed dunk.
Back on defense, Lighty picked off a pass in the right corner and quickly started the break the other way. His long advance pass to junior guard Evan Turner resulted in a wide-open dunk at the other end, increasing the lead to 53-36.
OSU again dropped back into its 1-3-1 zone defense and forced another turnover. After pushing the ball up the court, senior guard Jeremie Simmons handed the ball off to a trailing Kyle Madsen and set up in the left corner.
Madsen found Simmons for a wide-open look and the senior buried the jumper at the 8:45 mark, completing the 7-0 run for the Buckeyes. Illinois would not threaten again.
The Buckeyes grabbed the lead for good at the 16:55 mark of the first half when junior center Dallas Lauderdale converted two free throws, making the score 6-4. Those baskets were part of a 9-2 OSU run that made it a 13-6 Buckeye lead with 14:13 remaining.
The teams would trade baskets, but OSU made it an eight-point lead at the 12:39 mark when sophomore guard William Buford knocked down a three-pointer to make it 18-10. By that point, each member of the OSU starting lineup had at least one basket.
Buford's basket ignited another Buckeye run. Junior guard Jon Diebler hit a three-pointer on his team's next possession, making OSU 4 of 6 as a team in the early going. He hit another with 7:16 remaining to make the score 30-12 in favor of the Buckeyes, capping what stretched to a 15-2 run.
That basket made the Buckeyes 10 for their first 15 from the floor, good for 66.7 percent. The first-half lead stretched as high as 20 points.
"We thought that was going to be a big key today, getting out to a great start," Boals said. "We came out and hit some shots. We felt good to get off to a good start."
Illinois managed to chip away down the stretch after a timeout taken following a David Lighty three-pointer that made it 34-14 with 4:36 left in the half. The home team held OSU to just a Lighty dunk down the stretch but managed only six points of their own, setting the score at 36-20 at the break.
In the locker room, Boals said Lighty also offered his teammates a reminder before head coach Thad Matta could say a word. The junior pointed out to his teammates that three weeks ago they had led West Virginia by 12 points before coming out flat in the second half and eventually losing by six points.
It is the only OSU loss in its last 10 games.
The Buckeyes finished the half shooting 48.0 percent (12 for 25) from the field and were 6 for 13 (46.2 percent) from three-point range. Illinois, on the other hand, was 1 for 9 (11.1 percent) from deep and 9 for 31 (29.0 percent) overall.
The Illini were handcuffed by OSU's zone defense. The Buckeyes opened in the 1-3-1 but switched to man-to-man throughout the game in an effort to contain Illinois point guard Demetri McCamey.
It worked – Turner's prep teammate led the way for his team with nine points on 4 of 12 shooting. He also added nine assists.
"You have a high-powered offense and one of the best players in the league in Demetri," Boals said. "He makes them go. We wanted to do a good job on him."
Diebler led three Buckeyes in double figures with 18 points on 6-of-11 shooting – all from beyond the three-point arc. Lighty had 12 first-half points and finished with 17, while Turner scored 12 of his 16 points in the final stanza.
Diebler's six treys tied his season-high and were the most he had hit in his last 18 games.
"Jon's one of the best shooters in the country," Boals said. "When we set good screens and Evan draws defenders, those guys are ready to shoot outside."
Turner checked out at the 1:36 mark with a game-high 11 rebounds, eight assists and a smile on his face. No member of the Illini scored in double figures.
Turner's prep teammate in Demetri McCamey led the way for his team with nine points on 4 of 12 shooting. He also added nine assists.