Win over Illini keeps title hopes alive

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Last updated: 03/10/2013 7:22 PM

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Men's Basketball
Buckeyes Keep Title Hopes Alive with Win over Illinois
By Brandon Castel

COLUMBUS, Ohio —  There was no postgame celebration on Sunday. No nets to cut down. No championship banners being made. No hats or t-shirts either.

Maybe there will be a time for that, but not today. The Buckeyes were all business following a 68-55 win over Illinois, despite the fact that victory could be enough to earn Ohio State a share of its fourth-straight regular season Big Ten championship.

Aaron Craft
Photo by Jim Davidson
Aaron Craft

“There’s no point in worrying about something we have no control over,” OSU point guard Aaron Craft said.

“Obviously we would love for it to happen, but if it doesn’t it’s out of our hands. We did what we needed to do.”

The 14th-ranked Buckeyes (23-7, 13-5 Big Ten) had to win five straight games to close out the year in order to put themselves in position to have a shot at the championship. They beat Michigan State and Minnesota at home, followed by wins over Northwestern and No. 2-ranked Indiana on the road.

Sunday’s win over Illinois, which was fueled by Craft (14 points, 6 assists, 3 steals) and Deshaun Thomas (19 points), clinched the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in next week’s Big Ten Tournament in Chicago.

Now all they need is No. 7 Michigan, Ohio State’s archrival, to knock off No. 2 Indiana in Ann Arbor and create some chaos in the Big Ten. It would give the Wolverines and Buckeyes a share of the regular season title (Michigan State can join them with a win over Northwestern), but Thad Matta isn’t going to spend much time agonizing over the outcome.

“I’ll be honest with you, there's an old Illinois saying – any Champaign guys in the room will know this – the hay's in the barn,” Matta said after Sunday’s win.  

“From my perspective, there's not a thing I can do. If the sun's out, I might go fishing.”

Craft joked that he was going home to finish up some schoolwork, despite the fact Ohio State is on spring break, and he might clean his apartment while he’s at it. Deshaun Thomas admitted he “might check it out,” but his teammates quickly reminded him the Miami Heat were playing the Pacers at 6 p.m.

Regardless of what happens in that game, this Ohio State team earned some respect with the way it rebounded from a 22-point loss at Wisconsin back on Feb. 17.

“We got back, talked to each other and as players we looked at each other and realized we needed to talk more ownership in games and in practice,” said Craft, a junior who has taken over the leadership role of this team.

“We believed in the system and in our coaches and most importantly each other.”

It certainly showed on Sunday. The Buckeyes made quick work of an Illinois team that beat them by 19 points earlier this year in Champaign. The Fighting Illini (21-11, 8-10) were ranked No. 11 at the time, and they shot 48 percent from the floor while scoring 74 points in a blowout win over Ohio State.

The Buckeyes limited them to just 55 points Sunday on 35 percent shooting from the floor. They were also 7-of-25 from behind the arc with 12 turnovers.

“We put a lot of pressure on the ball very early. And that was the main focus throughout the entire game,” said sophomore point guard Shannon Scott.

Scott finished with seven points and three assists in 28 minutes. He also had two steals and nine rebounds to go with out acrobatic, over-the-back pass to Craft that set up an easy layup inside for Thomas.

“I was just being patient. We knew they were going to switch so I listened to my teammates who were watching for them and it helped when I was being double-teamed,” said Thomas, who scored 12 of his 19 points in the second half.

“It just means being ready and being aware of what is going on.”

The Buckeyes looked a little off in the early going, and the score was tied at 20 when Matta went to a small lineup with less than seven minutes to play in the first half.

“I'm going to say the obvious, we didn't have it for the first 12 minutes,” Matta said.

“We had a look in our eyes and I called a timeout and said, ‘OK, we’ve tried it your way. Now let’s try it the Ohio State way.”

With the small lineup on the floor – Thomas was playing center and Sam Thompson was at power forward – the Buckeyes ripped off a 9-0 run. Scott made the big play to get Thomas going inside and then he rattled in a 15-foot jumper off the next Illinois turnover to give Ohio State a 30-22 lead with 3:28 to play in the half.

Illinois senior Brandon Paul stopped the run with two free throws with 3:03 to go –he finished with a game-high 21 points – but Illinois failed to score again in the half.

“I thought the biggest segment of the game was the 12-2 Ohio State run in the first half,” Groce said after watching Ohio State close the first half strong.

“I thought we demonstrated a lot of toughness. We had a good energy about us and we worked together. I liked our body language and our disposition. At the same time, obviously we’re disappointed that we came up short.”

Thomas, the Big Ten's leading scorer, scored 12 points to open the second half as Ohio State pulled away. He scored six quick points to put OSU up 41-29 with 15:39 to play. The Buckeyes extended their lead back to 12 on a layup from LaQuinton Ross with just over 10 minutes to play.

After missing six of their 12 free throw attempts in the first half, the Buckeyes were 12-of-13 from the stripe in the second half. They shot 44 percent from the floor over the final 20 minutes and 47 percent for the game.

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