COLUMBUS With just four games left in the season and the Buckeyes starting to slip down the backside of the NCAA tournament bubble, Illinois was not the team Ohio State needed to see.
The Buckeyes lost their third straight close game Sunday, falling 70-68 to a disciplined, crisp and efficient Illinois. No. 16 ranked Illinois built an early lead with superior passing that produced great shots, then never allowed Ohio State the advantage.
We weren t good enough to get the job done today, Ohio State coach Thad Matta said as his team fell to 17-8 overall, 7-7 in the Big Ten.
We were trying to play catch-up the whole game, and we could never make the play to get the lead.
Illinois (22-6, 10-5) was deliberate and effective, often running the shot clock down before finding an open shot. Ohio State s Evan Turner said those episodes had a negative impact on his team s psyche.
They hit big shots with the buzzer going off, Turner said. That comes down to toughness. Why play 35 seconds of good defense and then allow that stuff to happen? That just kicks you in the butt.
The Illini led 16-8 about six minutes into the game, but an OSU rush cut that advantage to just two after Jon Diebler got fouled scoring on the fast break and completed a three-point play.
Illinois opened the lead back up to eight, but Ohio State backup point guard P.J. Hill scored two straight baskets in a run that helped get the Buckeyes within a pair, then Hill helped force a five-second call that gave OSU the ball back. Diebler s free throws with just over three minutes to play in the half knotted the score at 24 the first tie since the game s first baskets.
The Illini answered right back with a 3-pointer from Demetri McCarmey and led 32-27 at the break.
That was really frustrating, because there were times when we cut the lead and then they came down a hit a big three, Diebler said.
We ve got to pick up our intensity.
Turner, Ohio State s leading scorer at 17.3 points per game, had just two points at the half and went without a field goal in five attempts. Turner did not get his first basket until just over 12 minutes remained in the game, but a late flurry of offense allowed him to finish tied with Diebler as Ohio State s leading scorers with 17 each.
Illinois stayed on top in the second half with a steady diet of high percentage shots, and the Buckeyes had to scramble to stay close. A William Buford 3-pointer from the wing made it 41-37 with 14:35 left. Buford hit a pair of free throws three minutes later to get Ohio State within two.
Illinois then flexed its strength and got up 10, 58-48, when Chester Frazier hit a deep 3-pointer to beat the shot clock with six minutes left. After a Hill triple from the corner and a burst of points from Turner, Ohio State trailed just 62-57 with three minutes to play.
Ohio State got within 67-65 with 36 seconds left after Hill slipped in to rebound a missed free throw and put the ball in.
Illinois made three free throws in the closing moments, and only a triple from Diebler with two seconds left made it closer.
The Illini were led by Mike Davis with 22 points on 11-of-14 shooting and Trent Meacham with 17 points. Illinois had 23 assists on its 28 baskets in the game, consistently working the Ohio State zone defense until a breach could be exploited.
We didn t have the awareness we needed to have, Matta said. We re reacting to everything. There s no attack, it s react. We ve got to find a way to inject that into us.
Compounding Ohio State s woes was Illinois hitting 28 of 48 shots for 58.3 percent, including 9-of-17 shooting outside the arc. The Buckeyes weren t helped by the fact 7-foot B.J. Mullens and 6-8 Dallas Lauderdale combined for two rebounds.
Matta said Ohio State s remaining games are all must wins. With Penn State coming into Value City Arena Tuesday night, he said his team has to dig deep and finish strong.
This isn t the time to throw yourself a little pity party, Matta said. It s time to get tougher.
Contact Matt Markey at:email@example.com 419-724-6510.