CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Thad Matta had said just the day before that when Marc Loving finally made it rain, it was going to pour.
The Ohio State freshman made his coach a prophet last night.
Loving, who had not had a field goal in six games and was scoreless in his past four, scored the last eight points of a 12-0 run that blew open a one-point game midway through the second half and led the 22nd-ranked Buckeyes to a 48-39 victory over Illinois at the State Farm Center.
“When that ball went through for him, I was just so excited,” Matta said of Loving’s baseline jumper with 10 minutes left, his first field goal since Jan. 20 at Nebraska. “I talked with Marc (on Friday) after practice and said, ‘Man, it’s going to happen for you,’ and he said, ‘Coach, I just need to see the ball go through the basket.’ When that shot went down, you could just see literally a thousand pounds lifted off of him.
“I told the team afterward, if I could have gotten the game ball, I would have given it to him.”
Aaron Craft led Ohio State (20-6, 7-6 Big Ten) with 14 points despite playing only 25 minutes because of foul trouble. It was the Buckeyes’ third consecutive Big Ten road victory and fourth overall in its past five games.
The 48 points were the fewest by the Buckeyes in a victory since they defeated Coppin State 47-39 in 2007. Illinois’ 39 points were its fewest since 2009 but not the fewest allowed by Ohio State this season — Marquette scored 35 in a loss to the Buckeyes in November.
Guards Tracy Abrams had 13 points and Rayvonte Rice 11 for the Illini (14-12, 3-10), which has lost 10 of its past 11 games.
“Obviously, our offense was anemic,” said Illinois coach John Groce, whose team shot 28.3 percent from the field. “Ohio State had a lot to do with that. They imposed their will, especially in the second half.”
After Illinois held a 23-20 halftime lead in its bid to become the latest of the Big Ten’s second-division teams to take down the Buckeyes, the teams continued to shoot poorly through the first eight minutes of the second half before three Buckeyes bench players ignited them.
Ohio State led by a point when Trey McDonald caught a rebound and dunked for a 32-29 lead with 12 minutes remaining, then Amedeo Della Valle slashed through the Illini defense a minute later for a layup and a five-point lead.
Loving followed with his eight straight points in a span of 41/2 minutes to give Ohio State a 42-29 lead with 5:26 left.
“It was like a monkey climbing off my back,” Loving said of his first basket.
How big of a monkey?
“A silverback (gorilla),” he said.
Loving, Della Valle and McDonald had combined for only three points in the previous three games.
“We rode those guys,” Matta said of his reserves, who gave Ohio State 17 points. “They were dog tired, and I didn’t care. I was leaving them out there.”
Illinois also had six turnovers in 10 possessions while its deficit mounted.
“We knew they were negative assist-to-turnover on the year,” Craft said, “so anytime you see something like that, you just try to play as solid as possible and hopefully they make mistakes — and hopefully they’re live-ball mistakes.”
Illinois got as close as 44-39 with a minute left after Craft missed the front end of a pair of one-and-one free-throw opportunities and Shannon Scott missed two free throws.
But Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Craft made four straight free throws in the final minute to seal the victory.
Ohio State shot 47.4 percent in the second half after shooting only 32.1 in the first.
“The biggest thing we did tonight was we kept defending,” Matta said.