"Our defense will be back," the forward said Wednesday.
So, with the game's outcome in doubt and the Buckeyes struggling
offensively, Aaron Craft took Thompson's message to heart midway
through the second half. The rosy-cheeked guard picked the ball from
guard Jaylon Tate, sped down the court, and made an uncontested
layup to give the Buckeyes the lead.
Illinois coach John Groce called a timeout, Ohio State's bench
jumped out of their chairs in joy, and the Schottenstein Center
crowd stood, cheering in jubilation. It was an easy basket that came
off a great defensive play, two things rarely showcased by the
Buckeyes over the past two weeks.
Ohio State (16-4, 3-4) ended its four-game skid with a 62-55 victory
against Illinois (13-7, 2-5), which lost for the fifth consecutive
game. The Buckeyes, having lost four in a row for the first time
since 2008, forced 15 Illini turnovers. Ohio State's defense had
struggled in losses to Michigan State, Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska.
On offense, the Buckeyes were better, too. Forward Laquinton Ross,
who scored 18 points, and guard Lenzelle Smith Jr., who scored 16
and made four 3-pointers, led Ohio State.
Illinois guard Joseph Bertrand dropped a game-high 19 and was
7-for-10 from the field. Forward Nnanna Egwu had 10 points and nine
But it was Craft's play that seemed to be the spark the Buckeyes
needed to get back on track. Ohio State was trailing when the steal
occurred with 14:17 remaining in the contest. After the layup,
Illinois would not take the lead back.
"Once again, I still think we're at our best when our defense is
connected," Craft said. "I think that's what happened. We had active
hands, got a lot of tips."
Craft, and the defensive play of his backcourt mate, guard Shannon
Scott, had two steals apiece. Five different Buckeyes recorded at
least one steal, including a game-high three by Smith Jr.
"I thought Craft and Scott were great defensively," Groce said.
"Everybody talks about their steals, but it's the disruption of your
offense (that they affect)."
Easy baskets given up, not contesting open jumpers, and an abundance
of offensive rebounds allowed were all issues Ohio State had in its
last four losses. But playing at home seemed to motivate a Buckeyes
team that opened the season with 15 straight wins. Groce saw it
"No question. No question," Groce said. "I kept talking about it for
[to top of second column]
Both teams displayed many of the same issues that plagued them
during their respective losing streaks in the first half.
There were 13 turnovers, 14 fouls and 17 made field goals in
the opening 20 minutes. With nearly eight minutes left in the
half, Ohio State lost the ball more times than it had baskets.
The two teams combined to shoot 17-of-50 from the field in the
Opportunities to take control of the game
presented themselves to both teams early on. But neither team could
take advantage of them. That ended up hurting Illinois more than it
did Ohio State.
"Unfortunately, we weren't able to capitalize on (the first half) as
much as we needed to," Groce said.
When the second half began, both teams' offensive displays began to
improve. Ohio State shot 54 percent from the field in the final 20
minutes. Illinois shot 44 percent.
Down the stretch, it was Smith Jr. that made the critical shots.
Prior to the game, Smith Jr. stood alone on the Schottenstein Center
court. With his headphones on, the senior guard took an array of
3-pointers. Nearly all of them went through the net.
The outside shots fell for Smith Jr. when the game mattered as well.
He hit a 3-pointer with 1:16 remaining and one second left on the
shot clock to give Ohio State an eight-point lead. His four made
3-pointers are a season high. He hadn't made multiple 3-pointers in
a previous conference game.
"It's a mental thing. Sometimes I get in a mental state of, 'Ah, I
missed a shot. Maybe I should get in the lane and get a layup,'"
Smith said. "Luckily down the stretch I came through for us."
Ohio State's players ran off the floor Thursday night with a hop in
their steps and smiles on their faces. The longest losing streak the
program had suffered in nearly five seasons is over.
"I don't think anybody here signed up to lose games. Obviously guys
are feeling a little better now," Smith Jr. said. "It's definitely a
step closer. It feels good."
The Buckeyes next play Jan. 29 against Penn State. Illinois takes
the court again Sunday against Indiana.
NOTES: Ohio State shot 52 percent from the field after shooting 40
percent as a team during the four-game losing streak. ... Illinois
is now 1-4 against ranked teams this season. ... Ohio State received
four points from its bench players.
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.