Tate: Illini can't put pieces together

Tate: Illini can't put pieces together

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Recently wandering lost in the woods, Joseph Bertrand and Nnanna Egwu found their way out, just in time to start the search for a missing Rayvonte Rice.

What next, coach John Groce? Is this a free fall or can the Illini begin to turn it around Sunday at Indiana?

The Illini losing streak reached five, 62-55, on Thursday night as Ohio State broke out of a 46-46 tie with late-game shot-making. Bertrand rebounded from a four-point game with 19 counters, while Egwu, scoreless in the last two, made a 10-point, nine-rebound revival.

But Rice, the Big Ten’s No. 4 scorer at 17.4, was stifled by Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith, going 0 for 8 without a free throw. Rice scored 12 or more in his first 16 games but is in a 10-for-43 slump in the last four, and without a free throw attempt in the last two. Big Ten teams appear to have caught on to his basket-attacking sorties.

“Joe-Joe and Nnanna kept us in the game,” Groce said. “They hadn’t played like that lately, so it was good to see. But if you had asked me beforehand how we’d do if Ray and Tracy (Abrams) went 2 for 16, I wouldn’t have liked our chances.”

Just when one problem is solved, another crops up for the Illini, once 13-2 and now 13-7. That’s the way it goes when the losses start piling up. On the other side, scoring leader LaQuinton Ross (18 points) spoke of a team coming together:

“We were connected tonight, a group effort. And we got the crowd into it. We’ve been losing in the last five minutes, and tonight we were really focused in the last five minutes.”

Serve, protect

Thad Matta’s club, just two-plus weeks removed from a Top 5 ranking, became the first to break a mind-boggling statistical phenomenon: Ohio State, Wisconsin, Oregon and Iowa State combined for 58 victories before losing, then dropped a combined 14 in a row before Thursday night.

Take your pick of Ohio State-Illinois game deciders after noting that both teams shot 41 percent and the rebounds were 32-31.

“Ohio State turned live-ball turnovers into big baskets,” Groce said. “We had nine turnovers in the second half, and that’s too many. They got some deflections and got into transition. I talked for two days — take care of the ball, take care of the ball — and we didn’t do it. We let them disrupt our flow, and they shot 54 percent in the second half.”

Ohio State made huge treys, accounting for nine more points than Illinois. Ross and Smith combined for 11 field goals in 22 shots, including 6-for-13 arc-shooting.

“We needed to capitalize in the first half when Ohio State was missing,” Groce said, “but we only came out with a one-point (25-24) lead.

Slow going

The game started slowly, Illinois managing one basket by Bertrand and trailing 7-3 after 71/2 minutes. As it grinded along, it was hard to find a comparison with Wednesday’s action in which Michigan outran Iowa and Minnesota outshot Wisconsin. Both those games were marked by high energy and superb individual performances, even by the losers (Hawkeye Aaron White and Badger Sam Dekker).

The Buckeyes missed 16 of their first 20 shots before Craft drove in for a layup with 3:35 left, and Zion-Benton’s Smith bagged two treys to awaken the home crowd.

Rice and Abrams failed to produce a point in those dreary 20 minutes, and it became an uphill climb with those two cold from outside and unable to find their customary routes to the hoop.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.