CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – For as difficult as Ohio State’s Big Ten losing streak had been, the Buckeyes could hang true to one thing: they’d kept it close.
A moral victory, to be sure, but the five-game losing streak that led into Saturday’s win against Iowa at least had the caveat of having all been by single digits. An extra rebound here, one or two fewer missed layups and things very well could’ve gone differently.
Tuesday night at the State Farm Center, that went out the window in the opening minutes of the second half. Aiming to build off a 16-point slump-busting win against the Hawkeyes, the Buckeyes instead suffered their most decisive defeat of the season at the hands of Illinois.
The final: Illinois 69, Ohio State 60. And it wasn’t really that close.
The second half unraveled quickly. A Bruce Thornton three-point play pulled the Buckeyes (11-9, 3-6 Big Ten) within 38-31 less than two minutes in, but it would be another 3:14 until they would score again. When they did, it was a Justice Sueing jumper in the paint with 14:56 left and made it a 48-33 Illinois lead. One possession prior, Jayden Epps had sunk his second 3-pointer in six possessions to cap a 10-0 run for the Illini and make it 48-31.
It was the largest deficit of the season for the Buckeyes, who had trailed by 16 in an 11-point loss to San Diego State in the opening ground of the Maui Invitational.
They would briefly threaten to make it interesting near the midpoint of the half. After falling behind by 17, the Buckeyes pulled within 52-44 with 10:47 remaining when Zed Key finished a three-point play. It marked a 13-4 run for Ohio State, but Matthew Mayer’s drive and finish pushed it back to double digits and stemmed the momentum.
It was the final push for the Buckeyes, who for an 11th straight game were led in scoring by freshman Brice Sensabaugh. He finished with 14 points on 5 of 13 shooting. The 57 points scored are a season low for the Buckeyes, who were held to 60 in a loss at Nebraska six days prior.
Early on, the Big Ten’s reigning freshman of the week looked set to build on his career-high 27-point outburst against Iowa on Saturday when he connected on a jumper and a bucket from the right block on consecutive possessions, helping Ohio State claim an early 9-5 lead. The Buckeyes had scored on four of their first seven possessions and were dictating the pace at both ends of the court, but just as suddenly the faucet was turned off.
Ohio State wouldn’t connect on another field goal for 5:54 when Bruce Thornton hit his first 3-pointer since a Jan. 12 loss to Minnesota with 9:34 left in the half. Ohio State’s defense had mostly held serve, as Thornton’s shot pulled the Buckeyes within 16-15, but the Illini would pull away in the final moments of the half as Ohio State’s misses continued to mount.
Sixth-year forward and captain Justice Sueing hit a turnaround jumper to pull within 21-19 with 5:45 left in the half, but after Sean McNeil lost Jayden Epps on a backdoor cut for a wide-open layup Sueing missed an early 3-point attempt and gave the Illini an advantage at the other end with a late closeout on a 3-point attempt by Matthew Mayer. It was Sueing’s third foul of the half, and when he checked out with 5:08 left Mayer hit two of the three free throws to start a run.
Fifth-year captain Isaac Likekele further fueled it with an ill-advised pass from the baseline back toward the top of the circle that was easily nabbed by Terrence Shannon Jr., and his dunk with 4:23 left led to an Ohio State timeout to try and stop the bleeding as Illinois led 27-19.
Likekele would answer with a floater, but Illinois would push it as high as 11 points on a 3-pointer from Mayer and take a 34-26 halftime lead after Zed Key fouled Epps on a drive with 4.1 seconds left and he hit both free throws. The Buckeyes trailed by eight points despite having taken 10 more shots than the Illini: Ohio State was 10 for 32 (31.3%) from the floor at the half while Illinois was 10 for 22 (45.5%).
Sueing came off the bench for the second straight game.
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