The Ohio State men’s basketball team extended its win streak to six games Sunday, as it defeated Illinois 75-73 in a close-fought conference matchup in Columbus.
OSU survived the Fighting Illini’s 3-point barrage in the second half, narrowly escaping as Illinois’ last-second heave bounced off the left side of the backboard.
After the game, OSU coach Thad Matta said he was impressed by Illinois’ performance, as the visitors played OSU tough up until the final whistle.
“I thought Illinois played very, very well,” Matta said. “They hit some of the (timeliest) shots that I’ve ever seen. Give our guys credit, (because) a few weeks ago we would have probably crumbled, but we kept our composure, we kept fighting.”
The Buckeyes were led by the play of junior forward Marc Loving, who had 27 points and seven rebounds. The win pushes the Scarlet and Gray’s record to 10-5, including a 2-0 mark in the Big Ten.
Matta said getting high-level play from Loving, the most experienced player on the team, is essential to the team’s success.
“Marc was very, very efficient tonight,” Matta said. “I think he kind of had a huge three in the corner, but also was able to put the ball down on the floor, got to the foul line. Marc has had a really, really good focus the last few games and, as your lone upperclassman on a basketball team, you hope that’s something we can continue to ride on.”
OSU was able to ice the game at the free throw line, shooting 28-of-39 from the stripe for the game. Both teams were in foul trouble early in the second half, much to the disdain of Illinois coach John Groce.
“We’ve got to play a lot harder without fouling,” Groce said. “That’s the highest number of free throws an opponent has shot against us all year and that was the difference in the game.”
Groce’s team only made 12 of 32 3-point attempts, and overall OSU held Illinois to 40 percent shooting from the field. Matta said although the defense is not be where he ultimately wants it to be, he is happy with the way the defense is playing.
“I think that we’re getting there,” Matta said. “The thing that I would say that I’m not pleased with is we made some mistakes and they made us pay for them tonight. Those are things that are happen. I do think we’re understanding scouting more. We’ve got to continue to build it, but I like the direction we’re headed with our defense.”
For OSU, the first half was one to forget, as the team was held to only 32 percent shooting from the field, thanks to the 2-3 zone Illinois employed. The rough first half, however, could perhaps be attributed to the absence of freshman point guard JaQuan Lyle, who picked up two fouls in the opening two minutes of play. The Buckeyes clung to a 30-26 lead going into halftime, looking for improved results in the second frame.
OSU found those results with Lyle back on the court. With their starting point guard leading the offense, the Buckeyes returned to form in the second half — seeing a near-instant improvement. With Lyle running the show, OSU shot 52 percent from the floor in the second half.
“I couldn’t be happier with the way (JaQuan) played,” Matta said.
Lyle said he was disappointed to pick up two quick fouls and put his team in a bind early on, but knew when he came back in the second half, he would have a chance to lead his team to victory.
“My mindset was that I was fresh,” Lyle said. “Everyone else had been playing the whole first 20 minutes so I took advantage of that. My legs were fresh and I made a couple of layups. Then I just started making plays.”
Lyle poured in 14 points and a team-high 5 assists — all in the second half — for OSU.
The Buckeyes, now on a hot streak with six straight wins, will move to face Northwestern on Wednesday in Evanston, Illinois, which Matta said will be a good test for his basketball team.
“We’re going to see where we are,” Matta said. “The last road game against (Connecticut), we were awful. It will be interesting to see how we come out to start that game. Northwestern is playing some great basketball right now and it’s always a tough place to play.”
Tip-off against the Wildcats is set for 9 p.m.