The Buckeyes and Illini collided in Urbana-Champaign in one of the toughest matchups the Buckeyes had faced all season. The Buckeyes demonstrated that they may be the real deal, coming back from eight down in the second half to beat the Illini 73-68 away from the friendly confines of Value City Arena. The Bucks rode Jared Sullinger’s 27 points and 16 rebounds to the tough fought win, his ninth double double for the season.
Illinois started out of the gate fast and strong. The Illini began with a tough man defense and did not commit to the double team of Sullinger except when Jared possessed the ball below the basket. The strategy allowed the Illini to be aggressive in all other phases of defense and open up a quick lead by forcing turnovers. The Bucks didn’t stay down long, though, finding second chance points in the paint and a long three from Diebler to regain the lead.
The defense on the other end of the court was a tough nut for the Illini to crack. Several times the Buckeyes forced turnovers after forcing Illinois to run 30 seconds off the shot clock. Unfortunately, it was only a matter of time until Illinois figured out how to work around the OSU help defense. With some clever passing, the Illini were able to find open looks from outside. Worse yet, they managed to get the ball down low to Jereme Richmond who nearly made it to double digits while the Buckeyes struggled to figure out how to defend him.
Through the end of the first half, the teams played to a stalemate. The Illini defense continued to refuse to bite on the inside passes to Sullinger, instead choosing to let Tisdale take care of him in one-on-one and eliminate the pass out to the perimeter. On the other end, the Illini continued to try to get the ball down low to find easy put back buckets with the OSU bigs out of position.
With a minute left in the half, the Buckeyes had secured a 7 point lead and seemed poised to continue to carry the momentum into the half. Illinois, however, wasn’t having any of that and quickly posted an 8-0 run to secure the lead using tough defense. The Buckeye’s offense was completely stymied, finding no good looks and missing the ones that were there. Worse yet, the easy inside layups weren’t falling, including Craft’s last attempt at the end of the half that bounced off the front of the rim.
By the half, the Buckeyes had only shot 12-31 (38.7%) from the field, speaking to the tough Illinois defense that was keeping the Buckeyes in check. Not surprisingly, OSU hit 4-10 (40%) from three, right around their usual percentage. Comparitively, the Illini shot a better 15-31 (48.4%) from the floor, but did not do so well from three hitting only 2-6 (33.3%). The Battle of the Freshmen Big Men in the first half seemed to go Illinois’ way. While Sullinger’s 11 points and 8 rebounds were impressive, it was clear that he was outstripped by the play of Richmond who hit 12 points, picked up 6 rebounds and 2 assists.
Both teams came out of the gate with the same energy of the first half, but none of the shooting prowess. For several minutes, neither team was able to hit a basket – mostly because the inside was blocked to both teams with solid defense. But it only felt like a brief lull before someone started to take control.
The first team to do so was Illinois when Demetri McCamey finally hit his first basket with about 14 minutes to go. The three pointer felt like a dagger to the heart as it seemed like if McCamey suddenly turned his game on, the Buckeyes were not going to be able to keep up. The Illini quickly jumped to an 8 point lead on a 13-4 run and seemed to have the Buckeyes on the ropes.
The Buckeyes halted the run by switching their offensive gameplan. Rather than continually trying to go into Sullinger, the Buckeyes instead spread the court and used their guards to drive the lane and try to draw fouls down in the paint. Deibler demonstrated this strategy perfectly, going strong against Leonard to draw his 4th foul.
With the threat increased from the guards, the Illini couldn’t collapse on Sulinger any longer, freeing Sullinger to make plays at the basket. The strategic change allowed the Bucks to go on an 11-0 run and reclaim a three point lead on a Diebler three ball from the left corner.
Once the Bucks had secured a 6 point lead, the teams began to trade shots back and forth through most of the half. While the Buckeyes held on to the lead, the Illini demonstrated poor clock management against the tough OSU defense. Desperate for points the Illini wasted too much time looking for the perfect shot rather than simply trying to find an acceptable one. Luckily for the Illini, it didn’t particularly matter as Illinois managed to close the gap to 3 on freethrows after a particularly rough possession that included a terribly called blocking foul on Craft under the Illinois basket.
The Buckeyes countered by going to Sullinger down low to draw a foul. When Sullinger hit only one of two, the Illini countered with a big three pointer from Tisdale to close to within one with only 16 seconds left. With Bruce Weber wanting to extending the game as much as possible, Illinois fouled Craft who managed to hit both of his free throws to increase the lead to three. On the ensuing possession, Jon Diebler knocked the ball away from Tisdale as he drove the lane allowing Sullinger to control the ball and put the Illini in a tough position. When Buford hit his pair of freethrows after the resulting inbounds play, Illinois was finished.
With the Buckeyes down eight at the middle of the second half, it would have been easy for this team to give up and fall to the toughest opponent they’ve played yet. However, it was incredibly impressive how they fought back and secured the win at the end despite a tough fight from the Illini at the end. This is a great sign for the young team moving forward in the season.
Even better was the stats put up by Sullinger in the game. His double-double, his ninth for the season, with 27 points and 16 rebounds was an impressive performance against a great team with tough inside players. His play today demonstrated why these Buckeyes are tough to beat, as if you play Sullinger in one-on-one defense he will burn you repeatedly, even with good defenders. If, however, you choose to double team him, you get burned by OSU’s other players.
With the win, the Buckeyes advanced to 20-0 for the best start since the ’61-’62 season, which went 27-0 before falling to Cincinnati in the championship game. For the game, the Buckeyes shot 21-53 (39.6%) from the floor and 7-15 (46.7%) from three, substantially better shooting than at the half. Illinois responded with 28-66 (42.4%) and 4-18 (22.2%) respectively, demonstrating that OSU’s defense improved immensely in the second half that helped to keep Illinois down. Sullinger was joined by only Jon Diebler’s 15 points in double digit scoring. Richmond led the Illini with 18, while Tisdale (15) and Davis (11) also broke double figures.
The Buckeyes next play the Purdue Boilermakers in Value City Arena at 9 PM Eastern Time on Tuesday night. You’ll be able to see that game on ESPN.