CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — In a season where any sense of normalcy has gone by the wayside, Ohio State’s found life on the road to be a remedy. On Saturday night, the Buckeyes traipsed into the newly renamed State Farm Center, a personal house of horrors, where their past two games included Brandon Paul’s 43-point surge and a listless 19-point loss.
There was little reason for optimism. But there were the men in Scarlet and Gray conquering their nemesis, defeating Illinois 48-39. It’s Ohio State’s sixth win away from Value City Arena this season and third in a row. It’s the latest chapter in the Buckeyes’ January-February oddities. They lost three consecutive road games following the New Year, but have since found comfort away from Columbus.
“We have not played our best basketball in this building,” senior point guard Aaron Craft said. “We just wanted to find a way to end that. Did we play perfect? No. There are definitely things we can get better on. But we found a way to win and that’s huge, especially going forward.”
This time, No. 22 Ohio State had to overcome wretched shooting and foul trouble. It used a pivotal 12-0 second-half run, keyed by true freshman Marc Loving, to distance itself from the Illini.
The Buckeyes limited Illinois (14-12, 3-10) to 28 percent shooting for the game and limited a team to fewer than 40 points for the third time this season.
While one could draw the conclusion that shots weren’t falling, defense was clearly a catalyst in the poor offensive showing. Ohio State had 10 steals and seven blocked shots, scoring 15 points off turnovers. The Illini had a 20-minute stretch where it scored six points.
“I thought they imposed their will on the defensive end,” Illinois coach John Groce said of the Buckeyes.
After a paltry 32 percent shooting performance in the first half, Ohio State made 9-of-19 shots in the second half.
Aaron Craft paced the Buckeyes with 14 points, three rebounds, three steals and two assists. LaQuinton Ross (six rebounds, two blocks) had nine points, and Loving scored all eight of his points after halftime. Prior to Saturday, Loving’s last field goal came Jan. 20 at Nebraska.
“When that ball went through for him, I was so excited,” Ohio State head coach Thad Matta said. “I told him in practice it was going to happen. You could see 1,000 pounds lifted off of him. We’ve seen Marc do that a lot in practice. For him to come in here and have that type of performance, hopefully it’s something we can add to our basketball team.”
Ohio State’s bench provided 17 points.
- Ohio State has won the nine of the last 11 meetings in the series.
- Marc Loving scored his first points since Jan. 20 at Nebraska with eight straight points in a 12-0 Buckeye run.
“What you saw with Trey, what you saw with Amedeo, those are things we need them to do,” Matta said. “We rode those guys. They were dog tired.”
Said Loving: “We needed a little spark off the bench. Seeing [a shot] go in relieved a lot of pressure. My teammates had my back during my struggles, and they were looking for me. I took the open opportunities, and they went down.”
Facing a three-point halftime deficit, the Buckeyes came out in the second half and scored 22 of 28 points, including a 12-0 run which featured eight consecutive points from Loving. During the spurt, Illinois turned the ball over six times in 10 possessions.
The Illini never got closer than five points the rest of the way, despite Ohio State’s underwhelming 60 percent free throw percentage.
Craft spent large portions of the game on the bench saddled with foul trouble. He missed the final 10:10 of the first half with two fouls. The Buckeyes were unable to create much in the way of offense with their court general watching from afar. They went nearly six minutes without scoring.
When Craft went to the bench, he was 3-of-4 from the field with seven points, two steals and an assist. But in the second half when Craft retired to a seat next to Matta, the Buckeyes responded with its decisive flurry.
“It was rough,” Craft said. “I’m sitting on the bench. It’s tough when you don’t have a say. My teammates did a great job controlling the perimeter. Guys just did a great job executing, finding ways to keep it close and that’s what we needed.”
Ohio State captured win No. 20 for the 10th consecutive season. The Buckeyes are 20-6 overall and 7-6 in the Big Ten. They host Northwestern at 7 p.m. Wednesday.