E.J. Liddell backed up the court and flexed, his eyes directly aimed at Giorgi Bezhanishvili who had decided to chirp at him a little bit earlier in their Saturday afternoon showdown in Champaign, Illinois.
The bucket in the paint – during which he appeared to get hacked yet did not drew a foul – gave E.J. Liddell a new career-high in scoring and put No. 21 Ohio State ahead of No. 14 Illinois by 14 points with a bit less than 10 minutes remaining. The Illini, picked in the preseason to win the Big Ten, did what they could by increasing their rate of forcing turnovers and getting Kofi Cockburn on the offensive glass. Yet the Buckeyes refused to allow the game to slip away.
Despite entering the day as seven-point road underdogs, Ohio State secured an 87-81 win at Illinois to extend its win streak to three games. It improved its record to 11-3 on the season and 5-3 in Big Ten play.
A 3-pointer from Illinois guard Jacob Grandison chopped the Buckeye lead to five points with 1:30 remaining. After one Justice Sueing free throw and a Cockburn layup, it became a four-point Ohio State lead with 48 seconds remaining, and then the Illini started fouling. Back and forth they went, each going to the line multiple times down the stretch before the Buckeyes secured the win.
Liddell ended the game with a career-high 26 points, making more 3-pointers on Saturday – four – than he had in his first 13 games of the season combined. Seth Towns tied his season-high with 11 points. Justin Ahrens added 11 points, too, which included a trio of second-half 3s when Ohio State needed him.
Dosunmu, a first-team All-American candidate, led the Illini with 22 points to go along with his five assists and four boards. Ohio State made him and center Kofi Cockburn work for their buckets all afternoon, though. Cockburn made every shot from the field, recording 15 points and a team-high 11 boards.
Ohio State out of the gates firing, with five points from Liddell sparking a 10-point run that put the visitors up by eight points within two-and-a-half minutes. Though Illinois fought back to tie it up, leading to a 15-15 tie a little more than seven minutes into the game, the Buckeyes had another spark in them.
A pair of Justice Sueing free throws at the 7:31 mark of the first half jump-started a 15-0 run that included a Towns mid-range jumper off the bounce, a Meechie Johnson 3-pointer and eight straight points from Liddell whose back-to-back 3s culminated the outburst to put Ohio State on top, 30-15, just a little past the midway point of the first half.
Illinois couldn't close the gap before halftime, scoring 13 points in the final 12 minutes.
The two areas that helped the Buckeyes in their first 20 minutes were their outside shooting and work on the glass – both of which are strengths of the Illini. They went 7-for-11 from behind the 3-point arc in the first half. Liddell matched his season total of three made 3s in the first 11 minutes of the game, and Towns added a pair of triples. Ohio State also maintained a 20-11 edge in the rebounding department, which included a 6-3 advantage in offensive boards. That led to eight second-chance points in the first half for Ohio State compared to zero for Illinois.
Next up: The Buckeyes go back to Columbus to take on Purdue at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Schottenstein Center for the second time this season after losing 67-60 at West Lafayette on Dec. 16.
- The team's only two veteran point guards – CJ Walker and Jimmy Sotos – remained unavailable due to injuries. Walker is dealing with torn ligaments in his right hand, and Sotos has a shoulder injury. The estimated date of their returns remains unknown.
- Ohio State didn't alter its starting five. Chris Holtmann once again rolled with Duane Washington Jr., Justice Sueing, Justin Ahrens, E.J. Liddell and Kyle Young.
- Ibrahima Diallo (sprained MCL) is also out for the foreseeable future. He's not practicing.