A win’s a win.
For the No. 17 Ohio State Buckeyes, that’s all that really matters after beating Illinois, 62-55, to put a stop to a four-game losing streak.
“We try to do our best to put the losing streak behind us. This game wasn’t about that. It was about trying to come out and find a way to be better than Illinois and that’s our only goal in this game,” senior guard Aaron Craft said after the win. “We wanted to find a way to get better before this game in practice and watching film and we were able to do that. We were a tougher basketball team down the stretch than we have been, and that’s what matters.”
A three-point play by junior forward LaQuinton Ross followed by a 3-pointer by senior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr. (his fourth of the game) and free throws down the stretch helped secure the win for OSU.
“I think it was just everybody being connected tonight. I think we had…it was a lot of togetherness tonight. You see guys jumping up and down, you see fans jumping up and down. We was able to get our crowd into it. It felt good to be playing back at home, too. Having that support for you from the crowd,” Ross said. “I think it was just a group effort tonight, everybody did what they had to and pitched in.”
Both teams struggled offensively early on, combining to make just five field goals in the opening nine minutes of play.
Smith Jr.’s second 3-pointer of the game gave OSU the lead, 24-23, with 57 seconds remaining in the first half, but a dunk on the other end by Illini junior center Nnanna Egwu helped give Illinois the lead at the break.
The Buckeyes had as many field goals (seven) as they did fouls in the first half.
OSU was able to gain momentum in the second half thanks to a 9-0 run that was topped off by a 3-pointer by junior forward Sam Thompson. That gave the Buckeyes the lead, 40-34, aided by four turnovers in six possessions by the Fighting Illini.
Illinois (13-7, 2-5) would not go away quietly though, as it would make back-to-back 3-pointers to stay in the game.
Craft would answer with a 3-pointer shortly thereafter, but two baskets by Illinois redshirt-senior guard Joseph Bertrand and a layup by junior guard Tracy Abrams tied the game at 46.
Ross would bury a three from the wing, though, and a steal by Smith Jr. lead to a layup by junior guard Shannon Scott that gave OSU a five-point advantage with 3:31 left.
The Buckeyes (16-4, 3-4) were able to make enough plays late to hold off Illinois for the win.
“I’m just so excited for my team right now. Got a chance to see guys smiling and I miss that,” Smith Jr. said after the win. “As a senior on this team, obviously you want to see your team smiling as much as possible. I can tell you, prior to this game there was no smiles, there was no laughter. There was none of that. Guys were kind of in their shell. And now I feel like everybody’s out now and I’m just looking forward to going forward and playing the next game with a lot of confidence.”
Ross led the way for OSU with 18 points, but Smith Jr. wasn’t far behind with 16 of his own. Craft finished with 11 points, six rebounds and five assists.
“I think this. Did we play perfect? No, we did not,” OSU coach Thad Matta said. “The thing I liked was I loved our energy on defense. I thought we played extremely hard. I thought we got back to rotating, seeing things the way we need to see them. And that was something going in…you know offensively, first half I’m just like, ‘here we go again.’ When (junior center) 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 and give the (Schottenstein Center) a ton of (credit). I mean that crowd was as energetic as it could be and really helped us.”
Bertrand scored 19 for Illinois in the loss.
Next up, the Buckeyes are set to host Penn State (9-10, 0-6) Wednesday at the Schottenstein Center. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m.