Men's basketball: Buckeyes finish with momentum, but no league title
Ohio State guard Aaron Craft dives to force a held ball with Illinois’ Myke Henry as Shannon Scott joins the fray. Craft finished with 14 points, six assists and three steals.
The start of the game played out as Ohio State coach Thad Matta had a premonition it might. It tipped off at half past noon — his team played its two worst games this season at midday, one of them against the very opponent the Buckeyes welcomed into Value City Arena for their final home game.
Making it an even drowsier atmosphere was the absence of energetic students behind Ohio State’s bench. Most, save for a throng behind one of the baskets, already were gone on spring break.
Consequently, “We didn’t have it the first 12 minutes,” Matta said.
They got it, eventually,
But they did not get all they wanted from the final day of the Big Ten regular season.
The 14th-ranked Buckeyes’ 68-55 victory over Illinois yesterday kept them in the hunt for a fourth consecutive conference championship, a feat not accomplished since Michigan State won four in a row from 1998 to 2001.
But their hopes evaporated about four hours later when Indiana rallied in the final minute to win at Michigan and clinch its first outright title in 20 years.
Ohio State (23-7, 13-5) finished one game behind the Hoosiers (26-5, 14-4) and settled for a share of second place with Michigan State. The Buckeyes won the tiebreaker for the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten tournament this week because of a 1-1 record against Indiana; the Spartans were 0-2 against the Hoosiers.
Michigan State is seeded third, Wisconsin fourth and Michigan fifth.
The Buckeyes will begin tournament play at 6:30 p.m. Friday against the winner of a first-round game between Purdue and Nebraska, the seventh and 10th seeds, respectively.
“It’s always great to get a win … and close out the Big Ten season on a little streak we’ve got going on here,” Ohio State senior Evan Ravenel said after his final home game. “It’s momentum going into the tournament.”
Deshaun Thomas scored 19 points and Aaron Craft had 14 points, six assists and three steals to lead the Buckeyes, who won their fifth straight game since a 22-point loss at Wisconsin on Feb. 17.
After that loss, “We just took the attitude that we can’t lose any more if we want to accomplish the goal we set at the beginning of the year,” Ravenel said. “We went in there and grinded it out and ended up on the better side of those games.”
The Buckeyes recovered with home victories over Minnesota and then-No. 4 Michigan State before winning at Northwestern and, last Tuesday, at No. 2 Indiana.
That set up the rematch with Illinois, which had handed Ohio State its other bad loss this season. The Buckeyes had been ranked in the top 10 since preseason before falling by 19 points on Jan. 5 in Champaign, Ill.
Yesterday, Brandon Paul, who led Illinois (21-11, 8-10) with 21 points, gave the Fighting Illini a one-point lead with 6:05 left in the first half before Ohio State closed the half with a 12-2 run for a nine-point lead.
The Buckeyes forced three turnovers in the final four minutes and scored off two. Illinois coach John Groce called it “the biggest segment of the game.””Take that 12-2 run out, (and) we’re right there,” Groce said.
Illinois did not get closer than seven points in the second half.
“We kept hanging around and grinding,” Groce said. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t quite break through.”
The Buckeyes, meanwhile, feel they have made a breakthrough with their play the past three weeks.
“It’s always the goal of our program: I want us to be playing our best basketball at the end of the year,” Matta said. “I think we’re closing in on it.”