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No. 14 Illini fall behind early, can’t complete comeback against No. 21 Buckeyes

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Illinois has dropped consecutive games at home.

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Some holes you can’t dig yourself out of.

No. 21 Ohio State jumped on No. 14 Illinois early and was able to hold off a late push to beat the Illini 87-81 in Champaign on Saturday.

It has become a trend for Illinois to fall behind early. Ohio State punched Illinois in the mouth with an early 10-2 lead. After recovering — which has also seemed to be a trend — to tie the game, the Buckeyes went on a 15-0 run.

“We can’t just keep taking body blows and we can’t just keep coming out flat, lifeless, emotionless and with no spirit,” said head coach Brad Underwood postgame. “I don’t know what the right word is. It’s a blasé start, and we can’t do that.”

An issue that plagued Illinois (9-5, 5-3 BIG) in the Maryland loss last week was a lack of balance offensively — Ayo Dosunmu and Cockburn combined to score nearly 70% of the Illini points — but the Illini were able to spread the scoring around better against the Buckeyes with six players scoring eight or more points.

Dosunmu led the way with 22, Cockburn added 15 and following them was a strong 14 points from Adam Miller — including a few crucial late threes to keep Illinois alive late.

“I feel like we’re building what a championship team needs right now,” Miller said. “We see the problems and we’re going to get better.”

After leading by as much as 19, the Buckeyes (11-3, 5-3 BIG) took a 15-point lead into the break. Ohio State shot over 50% from the floor and over 60% from three in the first half. This left Illinois with the daunting task of completing another double-digit comeback. Much more difficult to do against the No. 21 team in the nation.

“We have to put five guys on the floor who won’t ride the emotional roller coaster and just play,” Underwood said.

The second half — as has also been the case as of late — was a much different story. The Illini brought energy, passion and scoring to the second half — cutting the deficit to just five at one point.

Cockburn was a crucial part of the Illini attack offensively, but in the second half he struggled with double and triple teams, and turned it over multiple times. Cockburn’s frustration boiled over with a slam of the ball to the ground — and an animated Coach underwood had some words for his big man.

“He better get used to [the physicality],” Underwood said. “And he better make free throws.”

Cockburn was fouled hard and it was deemed a flagrant by the officials, giving the sophomore two shots at the line and a chance to further narrow the Buckeye lead. After he missed them both and then turned the ball over, Ohio State capitalized with a three pointer and quickly grew the lead to 14.

A few three pointers drained by Ohio State deadeye Justin Ahrens felt like daggers for Illinois — but a late surge from Illinois kept the game within striking distance in the game’s final minutes.

Once Illinois cut the deficit to three, there was a chance for a flagrant or offensive foul called on Ohio State. After review, the play was ruled a defensive foul on Adam Miller — giving Ohio State two free throws that they would make.

The teams traded free throws and buckets in the closing seconds, but the deficit was too much for Illinois to overcome — falling at home for the second time in as many contests.

The solution? Underwood will be calling a closed-doors meeting.

“There’s going to be a pretty good meeting,” he said. There are going to be a lot of things aired that you guys will never know about.”

As it stands right now, the Illini have fallen toward the middle of the pack in the Big Ten standings.

HOMECOMING KING

E.J. Liddell is arguably the recruit that got away from Brad Underwood and his Illini staff. Liddell was a two-time Illinois Mr. Basketball (the same award Adam Miller won last year) and the Illini lost Liddell to Ohio State.

In the Illinois native’s first trip to Champaign, he balled out. The sophomore put up a game-high and a career-high 26-points against a team that wanted him badly.

STAT STUFFERS

  • Ayo Dosunmu led Illinois with 22 points, 5 assists.
  • Kofi Cockburn secured his nation leading 10th double-double of the season with 15 points, 11 rebounds.
  • Duane Washington JR (OSU) scored 11 points, and was 4-of-4 from the free throw line in the game’s final minute.

SOUND SMART

  • Illinois had not lost back to back games since February 2020.
  • After starting the season undefeated at home, the Illini have dropped consecutive home contests.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

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TWEET OF THE GAME

  • Barstoll Illinois is all of us.

HE SAID IT

  • “Oh, we’ll get it fixed,” - Brad Underwood said when asked about the Illini’s lack of toughness.

UP NEXT

The Illini stay at home for their next contest, as they host Penn State on Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. on Big Ten Network. Illinois beat Penn State 98-81 last month.