Illinois walked into Columbus, Ohio, and put up a fight against No. 17 Ohio State.
But putting up a fight just won’t cut it against a surprisingly talented Buckeyes team like this one, and the Illini fell 75-69, ending their two-game conference winning streak.
Keita Bates-Diop put Ohio State on his back and scored a career-high 35-points while collecting 13 rebounds. Illinois simply had no answer for the Big Ten Player of the Year candidate.
The top performer for Illini —to what is probably a surprise to everyone — was senior guard Mark Alstork, who led the team in scoring with 19 points. He played consistently well throughout the game on both ends.
Freshman guard Trent Frazier scored all 12 of his points in the second half to finish behind Alstork for Illinois.
Sophomore forward Kipper Nichols and junior forward Leron Black combined for 18 points, but fouled out late in the second half, forcing the Illini to play smaller four-guard lineups that could not stop the Buckeyes.
Once again, the Illini got smashed on the glass by their opposition, this time getting outrebounded 45-22 by the Buckeyes.
The Illini’s start was pretty ideal against the Buckeyes.
Defensively, Illinois was hounding Ohio State, applying a lot of ball pressure on the Buckeyes’ point guards while also denying the first pass, putting OSU out of sync offensively.
This forced numerous Buckeyes’ turnovers and led to easy points in transition for the Illini.
Offensively, Alstork gave one of his best first-half performances of the year. He came out aggressive by attacking the rim while also knocking down shots. He had 11 points midway through the half.
Junior forward Michael Finke also notched 8 points, hitting two threes and a putback layup. This start propelled Illinois to a 30-15 lead with roughly 10 minutes remaining in the half.
And that would be the last time the Illini scored in the first frame.
The Buckeyes and Bates-Diop switched gears and and went on a 19-0 run to end the half and give themselves a 34-30 advantage at the break.
Bates-Diop picked up 17 first-half points to lead all scorers.
Illinois’ 10-minute scoring drought included familiar struggles, such as a lack of ball movement that inevitably led to forced shots at the end of the shot clock. Ill-advised turnovers also made their appearance as the Illini finished with eight total in the half.
Ohio State got out in transition and had plenty of easy shots at the rim.
The Buckeyes were also crushing the Illini on the glass, outrebouding Illinois, 21-9. Ohio State also had 20 points in the paint while Illinois had eight.
Illinois erased this lead and scoring drought quickly once the second half commenced. Freshman guard Trent Frazier nailed the corner three and sophomore forward Kipper Nichols sank two at the charity stripe to tie it up at 35.
But there still was no answer for Bates-Diop, who continued to have his way with the Illini. His length and athleticism made him an impossible cover, even for Nichols — the only Illini that could’ve matched him athletically.
With 11:52 remaining in the game, Bates-Diop had 27 points and nine rebounds, and the Buckeyes had a 46-42 advantage.
But Illinois came storming back in this one. Back-to-back threes from Frazier and Jordan got the Illini within two. This was followed by a stolen inbounds pass from Alstork that allowed him to give his team the 53-52 lead after a layup and foul.
The Illini kept the lead for roughly five minutes, getting big buckets from Frazier and Alstork, but guess who would tie the game up at 63 for the Buckeyes?
After getting superb ball movement, Bates-Diop was left wide-open on the right wing. The redshirt junior from Normal, Illinois, rose up and buried the clutch basket.
Ohio State, a possession later, reclaimed the lead for good after a Kaleb Wesson layup.
The Buckeyes went on a 7-0 to jump out 70-63, but Jordan hit a stone cold three with a 1:20 left to end the run. A split pair of free throws from Alstork made it a three-point game.
But it wasn’t enough for Illinois. Ohio State did nothing to shoot itself in the foot in the final minute of this one. The Buckeyes hit all the shots they needed to at the free throw line to seal the home victory and avoid the upset.
The Illini will have a chance to recollect themselves at home Thursday when they host the Wisconsin Badgers, a team that whooped them by 25 points in January.
One Bright Spot
Illinois covered the spread in its football and men’s basketball games against Ohio State this year.