Ohio State came into tonight’s game against Illinois with a 13-10 (3-4 in the Big Ten) record. As suggested by their record, conference play had been very up and down for the Buckeyes who were coming off a tough loss to Michigan State where OSU got out to a nice early lead only to lose the lead thanks to a scoring drought partway through the first half that they couldn’t overcome. Despite their up and down season, OSU is currently projected as a 12 seed in the ESPN’s most recent NCAA tournament projection thanks to their top ranked strength of schedule and four wins over RPI top 50 teams.
The game got off to a poor start for Ohio State as Illinois hit back-to-back three pointers in the first minute and a half as the Illini scored the first 8 points of the game. Even when OSU finally got their offense going, the Illini hit another pair of three pointers to extend their lead to 16-5 less than five minutes into the game. At this point Kevin McGuff switched up the Buckeye defense, changing to a 3-2 which resulted in the Buckeyes getting out on the Illinois shooters better. OSU then started taking advantage of Illinois missing some shots and started to force some turnovers which sparked an 18 to 3 run by the Buckeyes that gave them a 23-19 lead at the midpoint of the first half. A technical foul on the Illinois coach seemed to wake up the Illini who started to hit shots again to tie the game at 28 with just under eight minutes remaining in the half. A pair of free throws by Martina Ellerbe and an old fashioned three point play by Raven Ferguson put the Buckeyes back on top and OSU continued their surging for the rest of the half on the way to a 47-35 lead at intermission.
As suggested by the halftime score, both teams shot well in the first half with Ohio State hitting 54% from the floor while Illinois hit 56%; the Illini did most of their damage from outside as they went 6 of 12 from three point range. The big difference in the first half was the foul situation as OSU played very disciplined ball, only committing 6 fouls, while the Illini were whistled for 14 fouls. The Buckeyes took advantage of this by going 17 of 18 from the charity stripe while the Illini only got to shoot one free throw, which they made.
Ohio State started out the second half much like they finished the first, hitting shots and taking advantage of fouls by Illinois to extend their lead to 57-39 four minutes into the period. At this point OSU started to have some communication problems which resulted in turnovers that Illinois was only too happy to take advantage of to go on an 8 to 2 run to trim the Buckeye lead to 59-47. An Ameryst Alston three pointer followed by a layup by Darryce Moore killed any momentum that the Illini might have been building and Ohio State wouldn’t be threatened the rest of the way as they coasted to a 90-64 blowout of the Illini.
Ohio State improved on their great first half shooting to hit 62% from the field and 50% from three point range in the second half; for the game the Buckeyes made 58% of their shots from the field while going 5 of 12 from beyond-the-arc. OSU did a good job of moving the ball, recording 23 assists on 30 baskets but there were some lapses in communication that resulted in 18 turnovers which led to 18 points for the Illini. Defensively the Buckeyes also did better in the second half, holding Illinois to only 33% shooting and 24% from beyond-the-arc; the Illinis shot 44% from the field and 35% from long range for the game. The OSU defense forced 21 Illinois turnovers which they took advantage of to the tune of 26 points. Ohio State had a nice size advantage and used that to comfortably win the rebounding battle 34 to 21; considering the fact that over the past two and half years the Buckeyes have struggled to rebound even against smaller teams, this is a very encouraging thing.
Ameryst Alston led both teams with a career-high 31 points and added 10 assists for a double-double. Alston was on fire for the night, going 9 of 13 from the field and 11 of 12 from the charity stripe. Raven Ferguson also tallied a career-high for points as she continued to be a powerful force coming off the bench to score 24 points while also tallying 6 rebounds, 4 assists, and a pair of steals. Ashley Adams also did a great job coming off the bench, scoring 15 points, grabbing 6 boards, and dishing out 3 assists while going a perfect 7 of 7 from the field. Martina Ellerbe was the fourth Buckeye to reach double figures, scoring 12 points and just missing a double-double with 9 rebounds. Darryce Moore rounded out the OSU scoring with 8 points and a pair of blocks.
Many of Ohio State’s losses this season have been the result of the team getting off to a slow start and finding themselves in a hole that they couldn’t dig themselves out of. That looked like it would be the story again in this one as the Buckeyes found themselves down 15-4 just five minutes into the game and Illinois doing a great job of shooting three pointers. Fortunately the team woke up at that point and pretty much dominated the rest of the game, shooting exceptionally well and taking advantage of the mistakes made by Illinois. The Illini would make a couple of runs after that point but each time they did, the Buckeyes always had an answer on both ends of the court.
Coach McGuff deserves a lot of credit for his game management in this one. While Ohio State had a size advantage on an Illinois team that primarily runs a four guard, one forward lineup, the Illini did present a matchup challenge in the form of 6’3” forwards Jacqui Grant who is a pretty solid three point shooter. Grant’s shooting ability meant that early in the game either Darryce Moore or Ashley Adams was forced to play outside to guard her which doesn’t really suit their strengths and Illinois took advantage as Grant hit a pair of three pointers in the opening two and a half minutes. Following a timeout by McGuff with the Buckeyes trailing 15-4, he switched the OSU defense to a 3-2 zone which put much more pressure on the Illini shooters on the outside and resulted in Grant only making one more long range basket the rest of the game. After years of watching Jim Foster rarely deviate from his opening game plan, it is nice to see a coach making in game adjustments so successfully.
This was only the third time this season that Ohio State really blew out an opponent; the other times being a 93-63 win over Lehigh at the end of November and an 82-60 victory over UT Martin in the middle of December. This was probably the most impressive and complete offensive game from the Buckeyes all season even if the OSU defense struggled to shutdown the Illini shooters early on. The Buckeyes still need to work on making sure they get off to a good start but at least tonight they woke up pretty quickly and when they did they pretty much kept up the intensity and effort for the rest of the game.
This season has been a roller coaster ride for the Buckeyes so as impressive as this win was, it is hard to tell what it means for the future for a team that has yet to win back-to-back conference games. OSU will get a chance to snap that streak when they travel to Madison on Sunday to take on Wisconsin for the second part of the Buckeyes vs Badgers basketball weekend. The game will tip off at 3:00pm eastern and can be seen on the Big Ten Digital Network.