Facing an eight-point deficit, in one of the conference’s most hostile environments, it was a pair of freshmen that ignited a second-half comeback and gave the undefeated Buckeyes a 73-68 win against Illinois on Saturday.
Freshman Jared Sullinger scored 27 points and grabbed 16 rebounds, both game-highs, despite giving up several inches to both of Illinois’ seven-foot-plus big men. But it was freshman Deshaun Thomas’ eight points off the bench, all of which came in a four-minute span in the second half, that sparked the Buckeyes to their 20th win of the season.
After leading for most of the first half, OSU gave up a 7-0 Illinois run to end the first 20 minutes and the Illini led 34-33 at the break. Another Illinois run in the second half, this time 12-4, gave the Illini their biggest lead of the game, eight points, with just less than 12 minutes to go. But when Thomas entered the game, the Buckeyes came roaring back.
Two free throws apiece from Sullinger and senior Jon Diebler and one from freshman Aaron Craft cut the lead to three.
After a defensive stop, the never-shy Thomas took and made his first shot of the game, a 3-pointer, to tie the game at 50 with 9:30 remaining. Two more threes, one from Diebler and another from Thomas, completed a 14-0 run and gave the Buckeyes a six point lead, their first lead since late in the first half.
After OSU held a steady lead for the next several minutes, a Demetri McCamey basket and a pair of Mike Tisdale free-throws cut the lead to four with less than a minute to go. Sullinger made one of two free throws on the ensuing possession to give the Buckeyes a four-point lead with 30 seconds to go.
Tisdale then hit a 3-pointer, giving OSU the ball with 16 seconds to go and a one-point lead. The Illini fouled Craft after he caught the inbounds pass and the freshman knocked down both free throws to put the Buckeyes up three.
On the ensuing Illinois possession, Diebler tipped a pass, forcing a crucial Illini turnover. Sullinger called a timeout after he recovered the loose ball on the floor and a pair of free throws from junior William Buford ended the suspense.
Although several Buckeyes struggled from the field all afternoon — Buford and senior David Lighty were a combined 5-22 shooting the ball — OSU was as good as it has been all year from the free throw line. Led by Sullinger’s 13-of-15 effort, the Buckeyes shot a combined 24-of-27 from the stripe.
Diebler scored 15 points on 4-of-8 shooting. Despite his shooting woes, Lighty finished with nine points, five rebounds and five assists.
Saturday’s game was the first of a stretch of eight games that will see the Buckeyes play six teams currently ranked in The Associated Press Top 25 poll. That stretch continues Tuesday at home against No. 14 Purdue.