Buckeyes Catch Fire, Torch Illinois in Columbus
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — It was only a difference of three days, but Ohio State looked like a completely different team Tuesday night at home than they did in their 56-51 loss to Michigan over the weekend.
Coming off their second loss in three games, the No. 8-ranked Buckeyes took out their frustration on free-falling Illinois with a 83-67 victory at Value City Arena.
The Fighting Illini (16-12, 5-10) came into the game losers in eight of their last nine since upsetting the Buckeyes (23-5, 11-4) in Champaign back on Jan. 10. They looked ever bit the part of a group that had given in, if not given up, despite what coach Bruce Weber had to say after the team’s sixth-straight loss.
“The thing that is so frustrating for me is our defense. It was something that carried us early and gave us a chance to win games and now it is not there,” Weber said.
“That was my complete message to the kids, there are still games we can win and a lot of things can happen. Unless the pride in our defense changes, nothing is going to change. I love our freshmen, they are playing with attitude and they play hard. They haven’t quit and we need to see if we can get something going.”
The Buckeyes shot terribly in recent losses to Michigan and Michigan State, but they could hardly miss against the Illini. They made their first four shots of the game, including threes by Aaron Craft and William Buford, which gave Ohio State a 19-4 lead before the first media timeout.
“You don’t know how you are going to catch them,” Weber said about the Buckeyes’ mental state coming off two tough losses in their last three games.
“They are a good team that has had some issues, but I think they have great leadership with Craft. He got them together and they came out and played with great urgency at the start of the game.”
The Buckeyes made 11 of their first 12 shots and were almost 71 percent from the floor in the first half as they took a 42-26 lead into the break. They got 11 first-half points from Deshaun Thomas, who finished with a game-high 19, and seven from Buford, who bounced back with 17 points against Illinois.
“We had a whole different pace to our offense,” Buford said.
“We were pushing the ball more and getting easy buckets to open us up from the outside. When you start performing at the beginning, it feels good and you can’t beat yourself up when you miss shots. When we hit shots early we feel like we’re unstoppable and no one can beat us. We have to pick it up, keep it together and continue to make shots when things go bad.”
Star forward Jared Sullinger had only three points in the first half and finished with just nine points and six rebounds in 27 minutes before fouling out. It was Sullinger’s first single-digit scoring game since he played only six minutes at South Carolina back in December.
That did not bother Matta, who was thrilled to see other guys getting involved at the offensive end.
“It was much better tonight,” he said of his team’s energy.
“That was one of the things we talked about. We stressed each guy needed to do his part in bringing energy and intensity. I thought that was a lot better.”
It seemed like the Buckeyes were running some different action in the first half especially, but Matta said afterward that he did not tinker too much with the game plan that has worked for so much of the season.
“We didn’t do anything magical; they just went down for us tonight,” he said.
One change Matta did make was to bring Shannon Scott off the bench early in the first half. The freshman point guard was the first reserve into the game against Illinois, checking in at the 15:25 mark for Lenzelle Smith, Jr.
Matta decided to leave Craft and Scott on the floor together in hopes it would spark a little more aggressiveness offensively.
“It just gave us another attacker to make plays,” he said.
“I thought our spacing and overall the angles we want when we drive were much better tonight. Shannon does a great job of understanding when to go and drive and not to drive.”
Scott was scoreless in the game on five shots. He did tally four assists, three rebounds and a steal in 22 minutes off the bench, but Weber thought it brought something a little different for the Buckeyes.
“That gives them a little more quickness. It gives them a different look,” he said.
“Scott didn’t get a lot done but that was another ball handler. As the season goes on maybe you rest Buford a little bit. It keeps fresh legs and eases the stress on him.”
Buford played 15 minutes in the first half instead of his usual 20. He scored seven points and added 10 more in the second half as the Buckeyes extended their 16-point halftime lead to as many as 26 points on a Sullinger jumper at the 5:28 mark in the second half.
Matta was able to empty his bench, and while it led to a few moments of chaos at the end of the game, it also gave him a chance to get a look at freshman LaQuinton Ross.
“I thought Q played well,” he said after watching Ross score five tough points in five minutes.
“It's still kind of new to him, but I liked what I saw out of him.”
The Buckeyes also managed to limit Brandon Paul to just nine points after he dropped 43 on them in the first meeting.
They will close out their home schedule Sunday against Wisconsin on Buford’s Senior Day before hitting the road for their final two contests of the regular season.
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