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‘Frustrated’ Underwood tossed, Illini can’t rally against OSU

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The Illini now fall one game behind Purdue and Wisconsin for first place in the Big Ten.

Evan McClintock

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Brad Underwood said the Illini need to treat the Big Ten like a fight in a Pizza Hut parking lot.

After jumping ahead early in the fight, No. 15 Illinois fell down by 16 in the second half. The Illini answered with punches of their own, but it was not enough to complete the comeback against No. 22 Ohio State, as the Buckeyes topped the Illini 86-83 on Thursday at State Farm Center.

“Ton of credit to Ohio State,” said head coach Brad Underwood. “That’s a pretty tough matchup.”

The last time these two teams played was on Selection Sunday last year when Illinois topped OSU to win its first Big Ten Tournament Championship since 2005. That game was a high-scoring, physical contest — Thursday night was no different, except the Buckeyes came out on top.

Defensively, the Illini (19-8, 12-5 Big Ten) threw the kitchen sink at preseason All-American EJ Liddell. A combination of Da’Monte Williams, Coleman Hawkins, Jacob Grandison and Luke Goode kept the Illinois recruit from getting on the scorer’s sheet until 10 minutes had gone by. Liddell started cooking as the game wore on, finishing with 21 points.

On the other side of the ball, Alfonso Plummer led the way. Plummer has failed to make a three in a game just four times this season, including the Illini’s last two times out against Rutgers and Michigan State despite leading the Big Ten in made threes.

“I’ve been shooting,” Plummer said. “Coach [Tim Anderson] told me, ‘You’ve had two games without threes, you’re a good player and you have to shoot with confidence.’”

Shooting slump no more. Plummer got each of his first four threes to fall, and tied a program-record with eight triples.

“Plummer was elite,” Underwood said. “He’s been shooting the cover off of it in practice.”

After Illinois led by as many as 13 early on, Ohio State (18-7, 11-6 Big Ten) was able to cut into the deficit to close the first half. Thanks to a flagrant foul on Williams, the Buckeyes were able to take advantage and cut the lead as slim as one. Ohio State closed the half on a 6-0 run and took its first lead of the game early in the second half on a Liddell jumper.

“We got to come back out with better energy,” said Frazier on the slow start in the second half.

That run continued deep into the second half, as the Buckeyes broke the game open with a 16-point lead. Illinois opened the half just 2-of-10 from the field and an Underwood technical foul did not help.

The icing on the not-so-good cake for Illinois was Kofi Cockburn picking up his fourth foul by the 11:47 mark in the second half — making mounting a comeback that much more difficult.

Cockburn is the only player in the country averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds. He has only failed to log one of those two marks (20 points or 10 rebounds) five times this season, two of those games (including Thursday) he fouled out. The Buckeyes stifled the big man, as he was just 5-of-15 from the floor.

The Illini made runs in spurts, but it seemed the big run would never come. Along with the struggles getting the ball in the basket came the dismay with the officials — leading to Underwood picking up two technical fouls and an ejection from the game.

“I was frustrated,” Underwood said. “You do something to rile your team. I was fighting for Kofi.”

But did he think he deserved those calls?

“The second one I didn’t deserve,” Underwood said. “The first one I tried really hard to get. If you’re going to throw me out, let me earn it.”

But once Underwood left in blazing fashion, the Illini rallied. After chipping away some, a 10-0 run fueled by three forced Buckeye turnovers left the Illini down just two with under two minutes to play.

“It just goes to show he has our back,” Frazier said. “Guys came in, stepped up. Despite the loss, I’m proud of this team.”

Frazier hit his first three of the ballgame with 14.6 seconds left on the clock, making it 84-83 Buckeyes.

“Frazier is one of the elite, clutch shot makers in college basketball,” said Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann. “He is a fantastic college player.”

But Ohio State made its free throws when it counted (26-of-32 from the charity stripe) and a Frazier heave at the buzzer fell short to send the game to overtime.

Illinois now is a full game out of first place in the Big Ten, behind Purdue and Wisconsin, with three games to go.

“Our goal is to get to the National Championship,” Frazier said. “Getting the share of the regular [season] conference [title] is just a little star.”

STAT STUFFERS

  • Alfonso Plummer (ILL): 26 points, 8-of-10 3FG
  • Jacob Grandison (ILL): 14 points, 2-of-6 3FG
  • Coleman Hawkins (ILL): 10 points, 4 rebounds
  • EJ Liddell (OSU): 21 points, 6 rebounds
  • Kyle Young (OSU): 18 points, 7 rebounds
  • Malaki Branham (OSU): 31 points, 10-of-11 FT

SOUND SMART

  • This was Brad Underwood’s first ejection as head coach of the Illini.
  • Kofi Cockburn has now fouled out of two games this season.
  • Alfonso Plummer’s eight threes tie a program record. Brandon Paul (2012), Trent Meacham (2006), Dee Brown (2005) and Kevin Turner (1997) have also hit eight threes in a game.

YOU GOTTA SEE THIS

Look at this sequence.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Andre Curbelo is sporting a new hairdo.

TWEET OF THE GAME

HE SAID IT

“Probably a top-three loudest crowd I’ve been apart of.” — Trent Frazier on the State Farm Center crowd.

UP NEXT

The Illini have their last road contest of the year on deck. Illinois will travel to Ann Arbor to take on a Juwan Howard-less Michigan Wolverines team on Sunday.

Tip off is set for 1 p.m. on CBS for a battle between last year’s Big Ten Champs.