No. 22 Ohio State 48, UI 39: 'We better figure it out'
CHAMPAIGN — The fans had seen enough.
With five minutes to go and Illinois in the midst of an eight-plus-minute field goal drought, the Illini committed their 12th turnover in what would turn out to be a 48-39 loss to No. 22 Ohio State on Saturday.
Many of those orange-clad fans in the announced sellout crowd at State Farm Center started heading for the exits.
Hard to blame them. They had suffered through 35 minutes of two offensively challenged teams throwing up clunkers and giving the ball away like Valentine’s Day chocolates.
Many of those same folks, including UI football players Steve Hull, Ryan Lankford and Reilly O’Toole, who were seated courtside Saturday, were across the street at Memorial Stadium three months ago when the Buckeyes and Illini combined for 95 points on the gridiron.
That was entertaining, though the outcome was never in doubt as the Buckeyes won 60-35. This brought back visions of horrific basketball duds like Penn State 38, Illinois 33.
“Our offense was anemic (Saturday). I thought Ohio State had a lot to do with that,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “They imposed their will on the defensive end, especially in the second half.”
In the end, it was the Buckeyes (20-6, 7-6 Big Ten) who proved to be a little less inept at that end of the floor. Ohio State won despite shooting 38.3 percent from the floor, getting a game-high 14 points from point guard Aaron Craft and eight from freshman Marc Loving, whose three field goals Saturday were his first since Jan. 20 at Nebraska, a stretch of seven games.
“Don’t remind me,” Groce said. “He’s a shot-maker. He’s more than capable.”
The Illini (14-12, 3-10) recorded a season low for points, and the 28.3 percent they shot from the floor Saturday was only outdone by the 28.1 percent clip they posted in a 49-43 loss in January at Northwestern.
“Give them credit, they were difficult to score against (Saturday), but we’ve got to improve. Whether that’s taking care of the ball or shot-making or execution,” Groce said.
Ohio State scored 15 points off 13 Illini turnovers, 10 of them steals. Shannon Scott registered five thefts, and Craft had three.
“It’s a matter of you being tough,” Illinois’ Tracy Abrams (13 points) said. “I give those guys credit. They played hard and smart, but it’s a matter of you being tough knowing you’re going to get it where you want it to go.”
Rayvonte Rice, who went scoreless for the only time in his career when these teams met last month, scored 11 points Saturday to go along with five rebounds, two steals and two blocks. Nnanna Egwu (six points, three blocks) grabbed a career-high 14 rebounds one game after pulling down 12 at Nebraska.
“He was tremendous,” Groce said of Egwu. “He was phenomenal defensively on Wednesday night in that game against Nebraska. I thought he was equally as good (Saturday night). He was a big reason our defense was that good in the first half. He covered up some sins defensively. … He’s an elite-level defender.”
Egwu was one of few bright spots in a game that ended up as Illinois’ 10th loss in 11 outings, moving them back to the bottom of the standings alone in the Big Ten.
“I told (Groce) to stay the course. No one’s going to work harder,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said of his former longtime assistant coach. “He’s going to keep coaching, keep doing what he’s doing. It’s a crazy league, and unfortunately they haven’t had a chance to get any decent momentum going, and a lot of it’s scheduling.”
With Saturday’s loss, Illinois equaled its conference loss total from last season with five games remaining and is one loss shy of its overall number from a year ago.
“It’s frustrating, but that doesn’t do us any good,” Groce said. “We better figure it out.”