OSU freshman guard Malachi Branham scored a game-high 31 points to lead No. 22 Ohio State (18-7, 11-5) to an 86-83 victory over No. 15 Illinois (19-8, 12-5).
Illinois threatened to run away with the game early. A combination of cold shooting from the floor by the Buckeyes and torrid shooting from three point range by Illinois guard Alphonso Plummer enabled the Illini to open up a 10 point lead at 23-13. Plummer went four for four from three point range to account for 12 of Illinois’ 23 points. He finished the half hitting six of seven three point attempts for 18 points at the break.
Plummer was clearly Illinois’ star in the first half but the Buckeyes had a champion of their own to offset Plummer. Senior forward Kyle Young was outstanding in the first half and netted 13 points to help keep the Buckeyes in the game. It was a tip in by young with the Illini leading by 10 that started the Buckeyes on their way back into the game. Young was effective in the paint as well as from three. Meanwhile, Branham was starting to do his thing. He too found his stroke from three, but he was most effective driving the basketball and getting to the rim for easy baskets. Branham had 10 in the first half to go with Young’s 13 as the Buckeyes chipped away at the deficit. The half ended with the Buckeyes on a 6-0 run to cut the lead to just one point at 37-36.
The Buckeyes took up where they left off as the second half began. They took their first lead of the game when they scored the first basket of the second half, then scored two more baskets to take a five point lead at 42-37. The Illini stopped the 12-0 run with a basket to cut the lead back to three, but the Buckeyes went on another run, this one also 12-0, to put themselves up by 13 at 52-39.
A three point field goal by Illini stopped that run, but the Buckeyes weren’t through. They immediately put six-straight points on the board to take their biggest lead of the night of 16 points at 58-42. The middle two points of that run came on two free throws by E.J. Liddell that were a result of a technical called on Illinois head coach Brad Underwood. Underwood was teed up for arguing a call by an official.
The Illini were down, but anything but out. OSU’s 16 point lead dwindled to just 8 before Cedric Russell hit a three to put OSU up by 11 again at 66-53. OSU was able to maintain a double-digit lead and looked like they were in control, particularly after Underwood drew his second technical and was ejected from the game with 6:21 remaining to play. Branham hit the two free throws awarded for the technical to put OSU up by 14 at 72-58. He then scored a layup on a drive to help match OSU’s biggest lead of 16 at 74-55.
The Illini were without their head coach, but they had plenty of fight still in them. The lead was cut to 10 on a pair of free throws with 3:41 remaining. A basket by Jamari Wheeler moved the lead back to 12, but a three point field goal followed by three free throws cut that lead to six with 2:46 to go and it was anyone’s ball game.
The Illini kept the pressure on for the remainder of the game and cut OSU’s lead to just two with 1:31. E.J. Liddell answered with a jumper to make the lead four again but the Illini scored again with 41 seconds remaining to cut the lead to two again. Two free throws by Liddell with 32 seconds on the clock made it four again but a three point field goal by Illinois with 14 seconds remaining made it just one. Kyle Young made it two again with a free throw with 9.5 seconds on the clock. The game was still in doubt but Illinois was unable to put together any offense in the last 10 seconds. After an Illinois turnover Russell was fouled and made two free throws with 2.4 seconds remaining on the clock to put OSU up three again. A desperation shot by Illinois as time expired was well off the mark and OSU left the building with a hard-fought road win.
For Ohio State, Young ended the game with 18 points and Liddell had 21 despite dealing with a flu-like ailment during the week.
The Illini were led by Plummer who finished with 26 points, 24 of them coming on three point field goals. He was 8 of 10 from three for the night. Jacob Grandison had 14 points, Trent Frazier and Kofi Cockburn each had 12 Coleman Hawkins had 10.
Illinois made 12 of 25 three point field goal attempts. The Buckeyes countered with 6 of 12 from three. OSU enjoyed a massive advantage at the free throw line. The made 26 of 32 free throws. Illinois was 11 of 17 from the stripe.
Photo of E.J. Liddell courtesy of OhioStateBuckeyes.com