Illinois basketball showed refreshing fight in loss to Buckeyes

By Alex Roux, Illini hoops columnist

For a game that started painfully slowly, Sunday’s matchup between Illinois and Ohio State Saturday sure was fun.

After a back-and-forth game of runs, a half-court heave by the Illini’s Malcolm Hill went just wide at the buzzer as Ohio State held on for a 75-73 win over Illinois Sunday evening. The loss dropped the Illini to 8-7 on the season and cemented their second 0-2 start to Big Ten play in as many seasons.

The Illini clamped down on the Buckeyes (10-5, 2-0) early, coming out with defensive energy and forcing four straight stops to open the game in front of a fired-up team bench. Though the Illinois offense fell into a one-dimensional 3-point attack as Ohio State answered with an 18-2 first half run, the pendulum swung back to the Illini in the form of an 11-0 run.

But the action didn’t truly heat up until the second half.

The Buckeyes kept Illinois at arms-length for a good portion of the second half, but a Michael Finke layup with just over seven minutes remaining in the game sparked a 10-0 Illini scoring burst over the next two minutes. Finke ended the run with a three-pointer, giving Illinois its first and only lead of the second half at 61-59.

Ohio State junior Marc Loving scored a game-high 27 points and helped seal the victory with eight crucial points down the stretch. Loving and freshman point guard JaQuan Lyle salted the game away at the free throw line, putting the finishing touches on a combined performance where they scored more than half the Buckeyes’ points and caused mismatches for the Illini defense.

Though the Illini led for just 39 seconds in the second half, they made Thad Matta’s Ohio State squad sweat. They scrapped on defense, dove on the floor for loose balls and forced 14 Buckeye turnovers on the evening. And when the game was in danger of getting out of hand — Ohio State led 59-51 with nearly eight minutes to play — the Illini didn’t roll over.

“This is a phenomenal effort from Illinois today,” Big Ten Network analyst Shon Morris noted as the game’s final minutes wound down.

Yes, Illinois’ late-game comeback came up short. And yes, Groce is now 1-5 against Ohio State during his time at Illinois. Illinois hasn’t won at Value City Arena since 2009 and is now 2-13 there since it opened in 1998. But despite the grim bottom-line results, the Illini’s performance Sunday undoubtedly helped alleviate some concerns and reinforce some positives regarding Groce and his team looking forward.

The underwhelming urgency that let Groce and fans down in the second half of Wednesday’s loss to Michigan was flipped on its head. The Illini showed they’re still capable of playing tough and giving effort for a full 40 minutes (on the road, no less) and that they’re nowhere near giving up in the midst of a difficult season.

Illinois also looked prepared by Groce to do what it could to contain Ohio State’s superior size and length at nearly every position. Hill absolutely locked up the Buckeyes’ dynamic Jae’Sean Tate, holding him to six points in 31 minutes. The Illini lost the rebounding battle (42-33) and scored fewer points in the paint (30-20) as they often will, but hit 12 3-pointers and shot 82 percent from the free throw line to help keep them in the game.

Illinois’ best players — Hill, Kendrick Nunn, Finke and fellow freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands — also continued to develop as a dangerous four-pronged scoring threat on offense. All four contributed 14 points Sunday.

Groce said after the game that his team hadn’t played as well as they did Sunday since their win over UAB in November. I found this game to be reminiscent of the Illini’s hard-fought loss at Providence Nov. 18.

In the record book, it’s another loss. It certainly won’t be the last loss this season, and there figure to be a good deal more considering the injuries Illinois is dealing with. But the depleted Illini wouldn’t give in against a solid team on the road in conference play and looked nearly as good as they have all season long.

During a snake-bitten season, it’s hard to be mad with those results.

Alex is a senior in AHS.

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@aroux94