Ohio State’s first four-game losing streak in almost six years is over.
Thad Matta laughed and shook his head. The relief on the Buckeyes coach’s face was easy to read. After the way the season has crumbled over the past 21/2 weeks, a win of any kind, including 62-55 last night over Illinois at Value City Arena, can drain the stress from a fretful coach’s face.
“Did we play perfect? Obviously, we did not,” Matta said. “I think the thing I liked — I loved our energy on defense. I thought we played extremely hard.”
Tenacious defense has been pretty much a given with Matta’s teams, so it seems odd to hear him say it. But the normally dogged Ohio State defenders haven’t been forcing turnovers the way they usually do, which means they haven’t had the opportunities for many of the transition baskets they usually get, which means that a team without strong perimeter shooting can find itself with serious problems.
Because of that, the first half could have won an ugly contest. At one point, the Buckeyes were shooting 4 of 20 from the field and the Illini 7 of 23, and Ohio State’s loss at Big Ten bottom-feeder Nebraska no longer seemed so hard to understand.
“Offensively in the first half, I’m just like, ‘My gosh, here we go again,’ ” Matta said. “And then when Amir (Williams) missed the dunk, I’m like, ‘Maybe this isn’t supposed to be.’ But to the kids’ credit, they had a different look in their eye down the stretch.
“I give the Schott a ton of credit. That (crowd) was as energetic as it could be, and it really helped us. But are we solved? No, no, no, no. (We have) a long way to go.”
Amen to that. As good as the win must feel to the Buckeyes and their coaches, that is the feeling I was left with. The Illini came to Columbus mired in a four-game losing streak, and in better times, this win wouldn’t have been the slog in the mud that it turned out to be.
Ohio State was 15-0 and ranked third in the country when it lost at Michigan State on Jan. 7. That seems like another century. Since then, the Buckeyes’ inside weakness and below-average outside shooting have been exposed, and their turnovers and the lack of turnovers on the other side have proved to be big problems.
But Matta’s teams have been remarkably resilient, usually finding a way to rectify their problems with strong defense. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that this team is going to have to do that if it’s going to have the kind of season it wants.
“I watched a couple of games from last year, and we didn’t play perfect then either, but we still found ways to win,” senior guard Aaron Craft said. “It’s about being tough down the stretch and finding whatever you have to do.”
Craft has always done that better than anyone, and he did it again last night. After Kendrick Nunn put Illinois ahead 34-31 with 14:53 left, Craft had two steals, three assists and one basket in the next three minutes. By the time he assisted on Sam Thompson’s three-pointer with 12:14 remaining, the Buckeyes had stopped plodding and were up 40-34.
Illinois’ nine second-half turnovers helped fuel the Buckeyes offense — LaQuinton Ross (18 points) and Lenzelle Smith Jr. (16) hit some big shots — and kept them from going where no Ohio State team at Value City Arena has gone before, on a five-game losing streak.
“Guys are feeling a little bit better now,” Smith said. “Obviously, we know we haven’t done what we wanted to do, or we got done what we think we should get done, but it’s definitely a step closer and it feels good.
“I’m just so excited for my team right now. I got the chance to see guys smile, and I missed that. … I can tell you, prior to this game, there were no smiles. There was no laughter. There was none of that. Guys were kind of in their shells. Now I feel like everybody is out, and I’m just looking forward to going forward and playing the next game with a lot of confidence.”
Bob Hunter is a sports columnist for The Dispatch.