End of Losing Streak Brings Back Smiles
By Rob Ogden
Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr. shared a laugh as they walked into the post game interview room. It was the first smile that room had seen in weeks.
The Buckeyes finally got back onto the smiling side of the scoreboard with a 62-55 win over Illinois Thursday night in Columbus.
Nineteen days and four losses separated Ohio State from its last win, a span in which smiles were few and far between.
"It's good to see guys smile again," Smith said after the win. "I missed that as a senior on this team. Before this game there were no smiles, no laughter."
The senior played a big part in bringing the joy back to the Ohio State locker room. He had 16 points and five rebounds, including a shot-clock buzzer-beating 3-point dagger that put the game out of reach with 1:16 to play.
Smith scored 10 of his points in the second half after the Buckeyes struggled to knock down looks in a first half that more closely resembled the past four losses than the first 15 wins.
Ohio State shot just 29.2 percent from the floor in the opening half including 3-of-10 from 3. The two teams combined to make just three of their first 19 attempts.
"In the first half, I was like 'Here we go again.'" Matta said.
"When Amir missed the dunk I thought maybe this isn't supposed to be."
But the Buckeyes got back to their brand of basketball in the second half. Suffocating defense and opportunistic offense.
They forced 9 Illinois turnovers in the half and finished the game with 16 points off the miscues.
The transition buckets were enough to reinvigorate their game, Craft said.
"We got some easy buckets off turnovers and we just started playing with a little more confidence," he said. "In the first half we got some great looks that didn't fall. We're not gonna make every shot, it's about playing through it and finding a way to make the next one and we did that."
Ohio State shot 54 percent from the floor in the second half including 56 percent from 3-point land. LaQuinton Ross finished with a team-high 18 points and added four rebounds. Craft finished with 11 points, six rounds, five assists, and just two turnovers, something that had plagued him during the skid.
"They had a different look in their eye down the stretch," Matta said. "I told Aaron Craft before the game, 'I need my Aaron Craft back.'"
Illinois pulled to within two points of the Buckeyes with 2:31 remaining, but Ross dropped a layup and converted on a foul shot to extend Ohio State's lead to five.
Illinois coach John Groce called that, as well as Smith's 3, the biggest plays of the game.
The game was lost for the Illinois well before those play though, Groce said.
"Unfortunately we weren't able to capitalize on their shooting percentage and turnovers in the first half," he said. "We were just a play or two away, but give them credit for making those plays."
With the loss, the Illini have done what both teams so desperately wanted to avoid. They've lost their fifth straight game in conference play and dropped to 2-5 in the Big Ten.
For the Buckeyes, it's a step in the right direction, if only a small one.
"Are we solved? No, we've got a long way to go," Matta said. "But it was a one-game season tonight, and to their credit they did a tremendous job of laying it all on the line."
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