Ohio State came home and found an old friend.
Coach Thad Matta did, too.
“I told Aaron before the game, ‘I need my Aaron Craft back,’ ” Matta said.
After a stuttering start last night in their first home game in 11 days, Craft and the Buckeyes did again what they did best before losing four games in a row. They forced Illinois into critical turnovers and scored off them in a second-half run that turned a back-and-forth game into a 62-55 victory over the Fighting Illini at Value City Arena.
“We’re at our best when our defense is connected. For the last few games, I don’t think we’ve really done that,” Craft said. “Guys have kind of left people out on islands, we haven’t had the best ball-screen defense, and it’s been everyone, not just one guy.
“Going into this game, we wanted to help each other out and not just leave guys out there by themselves. I think that’s what happened during that stretch. We had active hands, we got a lot of tips. That’s what matters.”
LaQuinton Ross scored 18 points and Lenzelle Smith Jr. 16, and Craft finished with 11 points, six rebounds and five assists to lead No. 17 Ohio State (16-4, 3-4 Big Ten), which won for the first time since Jan. 4.
Joseph Bertrand led Illinois (13-7, 2-5) with 19 points. The Illini have lost five games in a row.
Ohio State shot 29.2 percent from the field in the first half and trailed 34-31 with less than 15 minutes remaining before Illinois turned the ball over three times during a 9-0 run by the Buckeyes.
Craft assisted on three field goals in the run and scored the fourth off a steal as the Buckeyes took a 40-34 lead with 12:17 to play. Illinois tied the score once but did not lead after that.
“He instigated a lot of that (run with) his activity. Shannon (Scott) also got his hands on some balls,” Matta said. “Those are the type of plays we have to make with our defense, with our pressure. Illinois is a guard-dominant team, and I thought we did a good job of that.”
Illinois rallied to tie the score at 44. But a three by Ross and a layup by Scott off a steal by Smith put the Buckeyes up 51-46 with 3:51 to go, and they stayed ahead the rest of the way.
Illinois got as close as 52-50 with 2:31 to play, but a three-point play by Ross and a three-pointer by Smith increased Ohio State’s advantage to 58-50 with 1:16 left.
The Buckeyes protected their lead by scoring on five of their last six possessions. They made 6 of 7 free throws in the last 2:44.
“We were a tougher basketball team down the stretch than we have been,” Craft said.
Guards Tracy Abrams, Rayvonte Rice and Jaylon Tate had 10 of Illinois’ 15 turnovers.
“I kept talking about it for two days: Take care of the ball,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “Easier said than done. Everybody talks about their steals, Scott and Craft, but it’s the possessions where they disrupt you and disrupt your flow that affects your timing. I thought those two guys were tremendous defensively.”
Ohio State has a bye this weekend and does not play again until Wednesday against Penn State at Value City Arena. Matta is giving the players today and Saturday off. Their next bye is not until the final week of the Big Ten season in March.
“We need time off to kind of regroup and get ourselves as healthy as we possibly can,” Matta said.