BY CHAD DARE email@example.com
---- — CHAMPAIGN — Illinois junior guard Tracy Abrams reluctantly gave the Ohio State defense credit on Saturday night.
All the 22nd-rated Buckeyes did at the State Farm Center was hold the Illini to a season-low 39 points as Ohio State defeated Illinois 48-39 in a Big Ten Conference game before an announced crowd of 16,618.
"It's a matter of you being tough,'' said Abrams, who had 13 points, but he also had three turnovers and no assists in the game. "I give those guys a little bit of credit, they played hard and smart. But, it's a matter of you being tough, knowing that you are going to get it wherever you want to go.''
But Illinois (14-12 overall, 3-10 in the Big Ten) wasn't able to get where it needed to go offensively and even when the Illini did get a good opportunity, they failed to convert. Ironically, the 39 points is the lowest for Illinois since setting an Assembly Hall record with just 33 points in 2009 against Penn State.
During a 14-minute stretch of the second half, Illinois made just one field and two free throws, while missing one dunk and one easy layup.
"Obviously, our offense was anemic today,'' Illinois coach John Groce said. "I thought Ohio State had a lot to do with that. I thought they imposed their will on the defensive end — especially in the second half.
"I thought in the first half, we didn't take advantage of the shots we had. I thought we executed really well. I thought the ball moved well in the first half. Maybe, we will look at it and feel like we should have been up more than 3.''
The Illini, who scored 15 points in the game's first 7 minutes, 26 seconds, had a 23-20 lead at halftime, but that included making just 3-of-16 shots in the final 12 minutes of the half.
"In the first half, I thought we played well, but didn't make shots,'' Groce said. "I thought we defended well and had great energy.''
Ohio State (20-6 overall, 7-6 in the Big Ten) went on a 11-4 run in the final 10 minutes of the first half to close with three points.
That proved to be a sign of things to come in the second half for Illinois.
The Buckeyes needed just one possession in the second half to tie the game at 23-23 as LaQuinton Ross drilled a 3-pointer just 24 seconds in the second half.
Over the next eight minutes, Illinois lost its lead but the Illini got back within 30-29 on two free throws by Abrams with 12:18 left. Ohio State was 2-for-4 behind the arc during that opening eight minutes after making just 1-of-8 in the first half. Aaron Craft, who had a game-high 14 points, had the other 3-pointer for Ohio State.
"I thought Q's 3 to open up the second half and Aaron's 3 was huge for us,'' said Ohio State coach Thad Matta, the native of Hoopeston. "Those are the type of plays that we need to make to get ignited. The biggest thing we did was we kept defending.''
Ohio State turned its 1-point lead (30-29) into a 42-29 advantage with a 12-0 run fueled by six Illinois turnovers, including three steals by the Buckeyes' Shannon Scott.
"It was that small window in a low-possession game, a low-scoring game, when they went on a 12-nothing run,'' Groce said. "I thought that affected how the game was played out at the end.
"I sensed a little bit of discouragement with some guys over the offensive end. Some of that is maturity.''
Illinois junior center Nnanna Egwu, who had six points and a game-high 14 rebounds, said that the leaders need to get that changed.
"We need to lead our guys and show a good example,'' he said.
But it wasn't a leader that stepped up for Ohio State during its run.
Freshman forward Marc Loving, who had not made a shot in his past six games, scored eight straight points for the Buckeyes.
"As you've heard me say all year, our margin of error is really small,'' Groce said. "You turn it over a couple of times, a guy like Loving steps up makes a couple of shots, we miss a couple of layups and the game turns.
"And, it didn't turn our direction.''
Ohio State wound up shooting just 38 percent, but Illinois made just 28 percent.
"That's a big difference,'' said Matta.
And considering that Matta and Groce worked together for eight years, did the Hoopeston native have anything to tell Groce after his team lost its 10 game in the past 11.
"I told him to stay the course,'' Matt said. "No one is going to work harder than him. He will keep coaching and keep doing what he can do. It's a crazy league. It's a momentum league, and unfortunately, they haven't been able to get any momentum going.''
Illinois will attempt to get things turned around on Wednesday when the Illini hit the road for its next game. Illinois will play the Minnesota Golden Gophers in Minneapolis, Minn., on Wednesday. Tipoff is set for 8 p.m.