Second-half turnovers sink Illinois Basketball at Ohio State

Ohio State’s Jae’Sean Tate (1) and Illinois’ Ahmad Starks battle for a lose ball during the first half at Value City Arena in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday, Jan. 3, 2014. The host Buckeyes won, 77-61.

You could sense it coming. 

Illinois (10-5 overall, 0-2 Big Ten) clung to a narrow lead for most of the first 25 minutes of Saturday’s 77-61 loss to No. 20 Ohio State (12-3, 1-1), but once the Buckeyes turned up the heat defensively, the Illini melted. 

Effective 3-point shooting sparked Illinois early and it took a one-point lead into halftime. Rayvonte Rice was burying the Buckeyes in the first half, and the Illini were shooting well enough as a team to force Ohio State out of its 2-3 zone defense and into a man-to-man. 

Buckeye coach Thad Matta might want to stick with a man defense going forward. 

Ohio State forced 20 Illini turnovers with its smothering perimeter defense, many of which led to easy transition buckets for the Buckeyes. They were active in passing lanes and suffocated Illini guards when they had the ball on the wings and in the corners. 

D’Angelo Russell proved his basketball skills are as good as his acting skills (he tricked the referees with multiple flops) as the freshman scored 22 points for Ohio State. Marc Loving and Sam Thompson added 13 points apiece for the Buckeyes.

How bad did it get in the second half for Illinois? Head coach John Groce had used all five of his second half timeouts with nine minutes still left to play. By then, the game had already been decided, thanks to a five-minute scoring drought from Illinois. 

Perhaps just as disappointing as the Illini turnover meltdown was their poor defense in the second half, when Ohio State got to the rim at ease as its lead ballooned. Illinois had the 11th best defense in the nation last season, but have looked very spotty on that end at times this year. When the Illini offense goes cold, their defense has suffered too. Groce himself said his team played “soft” defensively following Saturday’s loss. 

Rice is probably the only Illini that should be exempt from criticism after this one. The senior guard scored 20 points on 7-of-8 shooting. Every Illinois starter notched at least 2 turnovers, and the starters shot just 7-25 from the field if you remove Rice’s performance from the equation. Shooting guard Aaron Cosby hit two big threes off the bench early, but faded as the game went on to finish 2-for-8 from the field. 

Following Tuesday’s letdown loss to Michigan, the Illini really could have used a win on the road Saturday at Ohio State. Most fans would not be too heartbroken over a road loss to a nationally-ranked Buckeye team, but the manner in which they lost has fans searching for answers once again. 

If you’ve been paying attention to Illinois basketball lately, Saturday’s performance Illini’s team performance followed recent trends. They’ve played bad second-half basketball for most of the year, and Saturday was no different. Value City Arena has also been a house of horrors for Illinois, as Saturday’s loss dropped it to 2-12 at the current home of the Buckeyes. Groce is now 3-13 in the month of January and 15-23 in Big Ten play in two-plus seasons at Illinois.  

Currently winless in the Big Ten, the Illini now have some soul-searching to do. How will they respond after two disappointing losses with No. 12 Maryland set to visit State Farm Center on Wednesday, followed by two more games on the road? Their Big Ten schedule sets up brutally early on, and things could snowball out of control if Groce is unable to right the ship. 

Just about the only good news right now for Illinois is that there is still a very long way to go in Big Ten play. Things went poorly at times during Groce’s first two years in Champaign, but his teams responded to adversity nicely in both of those seasons. 

If this Illini team wants to make the NCAA tournament, they’ll have to respond under Groce once again. 

Alex is a junior in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected] and @aroux94.