Dan Salter / Lantern photographer
The Ohio State men’s basketball team breathed some more life into its chance at a share of the Big Ten regular season championship.
Now, they’ll play the waiting game.
After defeating Illinois, 68-55, Sunday at the Schottenstein Center, the No. 14-ranked Buckeyes (23-7, 13-5 Big Ten) need Michigan to beat first-place Indiana to clinch a share of its fourth-straight conference crown.
Just the possibility of a share of another Big Ten title, which seemed distant after a 22-point loss at Wisconsin three weeks ago, was kept alive in OSU’s regular-season finale against the Fighting Illini.
An admittedly exhausted Thad Matta said he couldn’t be prouder.
“A lot of people had this team dead to rights a month ago, and they haven’t lost since,” the OSU coach said after the game.
Compared to a Jan. 5 contest in which Illinois routed the Buckeyes, 74-55, in Champaign, Ill., OSU shot 47 percent from the floor behind junior forward Deshaun Thomas’ 19 points.
Conversely, Illinois (21-11, 8-10 Big Ten) struggled to put the ball through the net, connecting on just 35 percent of its shots.
While the previous tilt between the teams saw Thomas single-handedly carry the Buckeyes and score 24 – or almost half – of his team’s points, he had plenty of help Sunday in OSU’s fifth-consecutive win.
Junior guard Aaron Craft slashed his way to the basket for 14 points, and senior forward Evan Ravenel totaled seven points and five rebounds in his last game in Columbus on Senior Day.
Junior forward Lenzelle Smith Jr. chipped in 10 points and six rebounds, and sophomore guard Shannon Scott added another seven points and nine rebounds.
Ravenel said the sobering defeat at the Kohl Center in Madison, Wis., became a catalyst and a wake-up call for a team that began the season with hopes of winning yet another league championship and returning back to the Final Four.
“After the loss at Wisconsin, we just said we can’t lose anymore if we want to accomplish the goals we set for ourselves,” he said.
That oath has since held true-even against the likes of then-No. 4 ranked Michigan State and the No. 2 Hoosiers.
All that remained Sunday was an Illini squad that embarrassed OSU more than two months ago.
In a first half that saw the lead teeter and totter nine times between the squads, OSU used a 12-2 run to end the first half with a 33-24 advantage.
“I sat in the huddle with my legs crossed and said, ‘We’ve tried your way, why don’t we try the Ohio State way,'” Matta said regarding the first 12 minutes of the opening half.
Matta’s not-so-gentle reminder paid off.
Illinois first-year coach and former OSU assistant John Groce said that segment was the difference in the game.
“If you basically take that 12-2 run outta there, we’re basically right there,” he said.
The Buckeyes, though, would never relinquish the lead it established before intermission and led by at least seven points for the entire duration of the game’s second act.
“We just kept kind of hanging around grinding … we were close a couple times but never made a play to get it to two possessions,” Groce said.
In front of a sold-out crowd, though, OSU did its part in the hopes of securing a league championship if Indiana is to fall to the Wolverines Sunday at 4 p.m.
Craft said he didn’t see the point in concerning himself with matters outside of his own control.
“We took care of what we can,” Craft said after the game. “Everything else is out of our hands.”
Matta echoed his point guard’s sentiment.
“There’s an old Illinois saying-any Champaign (Ill.) guys in the room will know this,” he said regarding his interest in the game at the Crisler Center.
“The hay’s in the barn.”
OSU is next set to play in the Big Ten tournament this weekend in Chicago at the United Center.