Free throws, rebounding haunt Illini in overtime loss to Buckeyes


Malcolm Hill (21) rises up for jumper during Illinois’ 68-63 loss to Ohio State on Thursday, Jan. 28 at State Farm Center. Hill shot 3-for-14 and Illinois went 18-for-56 from the field in the overtime defeat.

By Alex Roux

Check out the radio recap by Basketball Reporter Joey Gelman here

Incredibly, the game was right there for Illinois to win Thursday.

After trailing Ohio State for 22 consecutive — and mostly sloppy — minutes of basketball, the Illini capped a 13-point second half comeback by the slimmest of margins. Illini freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands barely edged his toes behind the three-point arc and splashed a trey with one minute left in regulation to knot the game at 58, and State Farm Center erupted for the first time since the game’s opening minutes.

After stymying the Buckeyes with 23 seconds to play, Illinois’ Malcolm Hill stood alone at the top of the key with a chance to win the game, but Ohio State’s Keita Bates-Diop had other plans. The Normal, Illinois, native blocked Hill’s last-second step-back three and the Buckeyes controlled the overtime period to escape with a 68-63 win.

The loss dropped Illinois to 10-11 overall and 2-6 in Big Ten play. Ohio State improved to 14-8 and 6-3.

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This was, objectively, a miserable game to watch besides the first and last six minutes of regulation. The Illini opened the game with a 13-2 scoring burst and closed regulation with a desperate 15-2 run to get the game to OT, but were plagued by offensive, free throw and rebounding woes for the majority of the contest.

The Buckeyes snatched 17 more boards than the Illini and used their considerable advantages in size and athleticism in the paint to push their way around in the paint. The 6-foot-8 Bates-Diop scored 15 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, but his impact was felt most on the biggest of his three blocks.

Hill can certainly be second-guessed for shooting a contested three instead of taking Bates-Diop to the rack in regulation’s final seconds, and Illinois head coach John Groce neglected to use his final timeout to draw up one last play. But Illinois’ performance in overtime should be most frustrating for Illini fans who watched their team revert back to the same brand of bad basketball that put them in a hole for much of the game.

There were too many bad shots and minimal off-ball movement on the offensive end. Ill-timed turnovers cost them as well, including a botched dribble-handoff between Hill and Kendrick Nunn that was the final nail in the coffin in the game’s closing seconds. Hill also missed a pair of free throws in the extra period, continuing his team’s wretched theme from the charity stripe in the first 40 minutes.

In Illinois’ first matchup with Ohio State this season — a 75-73 loss in Columbus — the Illini attempted just 11 free throws and sank nine of them while the Buckeyes went to the line 39 times. The script flipped Thursday, as Illinois shot 31 free throws to Ohio State’s 13. Illinois missed 13 freebies, good for a 58 percent mark.

When the final margin is just five points, you simply can’t afford to miss 13 free throws.

After the game, both head coaches were proud of their team’s respective efforts.

“I thought we got a little bit desperate when we went down,” Groce said. “We turned it up defensively.”

He’s right, and the Illini deserve credit for coming back from a 56-43 deficit with six minutes left. I myself declared the game over at that point, tweeting that the game was effectively over. But Illinois proved me and the sizable number of fans who headed for the exits early wrong, not giving up and riding heroics from Nunn and Coleman-Lands to the brink of victory.

Nunn finished with a game-high 24 points, while Hill put up a difficult 12 on 3-of-14 shooting.

But despite the admirable determination Illinois showed in its comeback, it goes down as another L in the midst of a painful season. These Illini just can’t seem to establish consistency from game-to-game and often can’t even do it from one half of basketball to the next.

Having forwards Mike Thorne Jr. and Leron Black healthy probably is the difference between a home win and a loss to the talented and erratic Buckeyes, but the final outcome is made more frustrating knowing the Illini were fully capable of winning Thursday with the guys they had on the floor.

Yes, the effort was commendable. But the execution was not.

Alex is a senior in AHS.

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