No Fighting Chance
Buckeyes Overwhelmed in 19-Point Loss at Illinois
By Brandon Castel
It started bad and only got worse from there.
For the first time in over three years, the Buckeyes lost a game by 19 or more points on Saturday, falling 74-55 to Illinois at Assembly Hall in Champaign, Ill.
Ohio State opened the year at No. 4 in the preseason rankings, but this marks the third loss of the season for Thad Matta, and the third time these Buckeyes (11-3, 1-1 Big Ten) have failed to win a game when they were not heavily favored against the opponent.
“It was one of those games where we weren't thinking the way we needed to think,” Matta said.
“They gave us opportunities and we couldn't convert.”
Illinois (14-2) was fired up coming off a loss at Purdue, and John Groce’s team played with both passion and energy Saturday, two things Ohio State showed very little of throughout this game.
The Buckeyes were sloppy at both ends of the floor, and the 11th-ranked Fighting Illini made them pay for just about every mistake. Groce’s team jumped out to a 5-0 lead against his mentor and it was nearly 8-0 when Tyler Griffey’s wide open three ricocheted off the rim and out.
The miss didn’t matter.
Ohio State couldn’t do much at either end of the court in this one. The 8th-ranked Buckeyes shot just 33 percent from the floor and 21 percent from behind the arc while turning the ball over 16 times in the first conference loss of the season.
Preseason All-American Deshaun Thomas led Ohio State with 24 points and four rebounds, but he was just 9-21 from the floor and 1-5 from behind the arc. The Illini implemented a similar strategy to those of Duke and Kansas. They swarmed Thomas and tried to make other players beat them.
For a moment, it looked like Illinois native Lenzelle Smith might make them pay, but Smith finished 3-9 from the floor and the Buckeyes never found any type of rhythm at the offensive end.
The Illini went on an early 12-2 run to give them a 25-11 lead. It was keyed by easy baskets for Illinois – including three alley-oop dunks – and nothing but bricks and turnovers for Ohio State.
“We got some points off turnovers in the first half that I think ignited us,” said Groce, who didn’t think a Thad Matta-coached team would be as careless with the basketball as this one was.
“I said before the game they're going to take care of the ball, that's what (Matta's) teams always do.”
Instead, the Buckeyes had 11 turnovers at halftime and Illinois shot 48 percent from the floor while outrebounding the Buckeyes 39-28. After scoring 43 against OSU in this meeting last year in Champaign, Brandon Paul led Illinois with 19 on Saturday. He was one of four Illinois players in double-figures.
That includes sophomore center Nnanna Egwu, who scored a career-high 16 points and grabbed eight rebounds for the Fighting Illini. They led 37-25 at the half, and things only got worse for the Buckeyes in the second half.
Ohio State scored just four points in the first 8 minutes of the second half, going 1-of-11 from the floor during the stretch. Meanwhile, Illinois ripped off a 13-2 run to open the half. Brandon Paul knocked down a three off a loose rebound and the Buckeyes suddenly found themselves down by 21 on the road.
They rallied back with a 15-4 run in the second half to make it a 60-46 game with 6:37 left on a jumper by Thomas, but that was as close as they would get. D.J. Richardson answered Thomas' shot with a 3-pointer of his own, and Illinois quickly rebuilt its lead back to 21, at 67-46 with 4:52 to play.
The Buckeyes were finished, and Matta would even send freshman Amedeo Della Valle and sophomore Trey McDonald on to the court for the final two minutes. It was a rough day all around for the Buckeyes, but the end of the road for Matta and his team.
“I'm panicked, like `Oh my God!'” he said.
“This team has shown it can play some pretty good basketball. Unfortunately you have games like this, but you hope they're few and far between.”
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