It had been a long time since Ohio State freshman forward Marc Loving scored a basket.
Four hours, 35 minutes and 14 seconds of game time to be exact.
Loving hadn’t scored a field goal since a 3-pointer with 20 seconds remaining during a 68-62 loss against Nebraska Jan. 20.
He had also failed to score in any way since the Buckeyes fell, 71-70, in overtime against Penn State Jan. 29, when he hit a pair of free throws.
But when his team needed him to recapture the form that had excited coach Thad Matta and the Buckeye faithful earlier this season, Loving did just that.
Against Illinois Saturday, the Buckeyes struggled to score — putting up only 20 points in the first half and a season-low 48 points in the game — and led by just one point with 12:18 remaining.
After buckets from bench players junior center Trey McDonald and sophomore guard Amedeo Della Valle pushed the lead to five, Loving found the scoring touch he hadn’t seen in nearly a month.
“It was like a monkey climbed off my back,” Loving said to Cleveland.com after OSU’s 48-39 win against the Fighting Illini.
When he was asked to identify the size of the primate, the freshman was quick to clarify.
“A silverback (gorilla),” he added.
Loving’s first made jumper in the month of February was followed by two more field goals and a pair of free throws, as the freshman scored eight consecutive points for the Buckeyes.
“We needed a little spark off the bench,” Loving said after the game. “Seeing (a shot) go in relieved a lot of pressure. My teammates had my back during my struggles, and they were looking for me. I took the open opportunities and they went down.”
At the end of the run, OSU (20-6, 7-6, fifth in the Big Ten) led, 42-29, with 5:25 remaining. The team held on for the victory despite a late charge from Illinois (14-12, 3-10, last in the Big Ten).
Before the scoring drought began, Loving was averaging 6.68 points per game but has since seen that number slip to 5.3 a game. His time on the court had also dwindled, as he recorded a season low two minutes during a 70-60 loss against then-No. 15 Michigan Feb. 11.
Matta said the pressure that was lifted when Loving made the first basket was immense.
“When the ball went through for him, I was just so excited,” Matta said in an interview with Cleveland.com after the game. “I talked to him after practice (Friday) and said ‘It’s going to happen’ … When that first shot went down, you could literally see a thousand pounds lifted off of him.”
Matta added that he thought Loving was deserving of the game ball.
“I told the team afterward, if I could have gotten the game ball, I would have given it to (Loving),” Matta said.
Loving wasn’t the only bench player for the Buckeyes to play well against the Illini.
Della Valle scored five points and added three rebounds, with junior guard Shannon Scott — who asked to be removed from the starting lineup last month — playing 26 minutes and recording five steals, four rebounds, three assists and two points.
McDonald also recorded two points in 15 minutes in relief of junior center Amir Williams, who failed to score during the game.
“What you saw with Trey, what you saw with Amedeo, those are things we need them to do,” Matta said. “We rode those guys. They were dog tired.”
Senior guard Aaron Craft was the game’s leading scorer with 14 points, but was saddled to the bench with foul trouble for large portions of each half.
Craft said it was hard not being able to play, but thought the bench players did a good job when they were needed.
“It was rough,” Craft said in an interview with Cleveland.com after the game. “I’m sitting on the bench. It’s tough when you don’t have a say. My teammates did a great job controlling the perimeter. Guys just did a great job executing, finding ways to keep it close and that’s what we needed.”
Next up, Loving and the rest of the Buckeyes are scheduled to take on Northwestern (12-13, 5-7, tied for seventh in the Big Ten) Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Schottenstein Center.
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