COLUMBUS, Ohio – In a meeting of teams stuck in four-game skids, No. 17 Ohio State had just enough to get by in the closing moments.
Joseph Bertrand scored 19 points, Jon Ekey had 11 and Nnanna Egwu added 10 but Illinois sank to its fifth straight loss with a 62-55 setback at Ohio State on Thursday night.
“We were just a play or two away, but give them credit for making those plays,” Fighting Illini coach John Groce said.
Illinois (13-7 overall, 2-5 Big Ten) pulled to 41-40 on 3s by Ekey and Bertrand and then tied it at 46 on Tracy Abrams’ slash through the lane. He missed the cap on a possible three-point play, however, and at the other end Shannon Scott fed LaQuinton Ross, who led the Buckeyes with 18 points, for a 3 from the left wing with 5:44 remaining.
The Buckeyes (16-4, 3-4), who had also lost their last four games, would never trail again.
The teams traded missed chances until Lenzelle Smith Jr., who had 16 points for Ohio State, stepped in front of a bad pass by Abrams and fed Scott for a left-handed layup with 3:50 remaining for a 51-46 advantage.
With the Buckeyes hanging on at 52-50, Ross drove the lane against the Illinois zone and was fouled, banking in a shot and adding the accompanying free throw with 2:07 left.
The Illini then turned it over on an offensive foul by Rice before Smith poured in a 3 from in front of the Ohio State bench for a 58-50 lead with 75 seconds remaining.
“That’s how a lot of our games have been so far,” Bertrand said. “We really haven’t had a bad game since [a 95-70 loss at No. 4 Wisconsin on Jan. 8]. Ever since then they’ve been pretty close and it’s been a couple of plays at the end.”
The Illini led 25-24 at the half, but Groce thought they could have gotten even more out of the opening 20 minutes.
“I was really proud of our guys’ defensive effort. Unfortunately, we just weren’t able to capitalize on it as much as we would have liked,” Groce said.
“If you would have told me in the first half, we were going to hold them to 29 percent shooting and 30 percent from 3 and turn them over nine times, I’d say we’d be in business.”
The Illini led by four points early in the second half. Their final advantage was a 34-31 upper hand at the 14:56 mark after a baseline jumper by Kendrick Nunn.
But then the Buckeyes went on a 9-0 run. Even though Illinois tied it later, the Illini could never regain the lead.
They haven’t won since Jan. 4 and play three of their next four games against ranked opponents.
Rayvonte Rice, averaging 17.4 points a game, was 0 for 8 from the field and went scoreless.
“I thought (Aaron) Craft and Scott were great defensively,” said Groce, a former Ohio State assistant coach. “If you’d told me before the game that Rice and Abrams were going to go 2 for 16 from the field I probably wouldn’t have liked my chances. But we were right there, in large part because Bertrand and Egwu and Ekey really did some nice things offensively.”
The Illini have lost their last six Big Ten road games and fell to 1-4 against ranked teams this season.
There were positives. They outrebounded the Buckeyes — once 15-0 and No. 3 before falling on hard times — 32-31 and held their own in most other statistical categories.
“Everyone was focused. We did a better job on the defensive end,” Egwu said. “We really got hammered on the glass by Purdue and Michigan State so our mindset was to take care of the backboard. We knew that if we could do that, we could get the ball and we had a chance to win. But we turned the ball over too much at the end.
“That was the reason we kind of gave the game away,” he added.
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