Deshaun Thomas, Evan Ravenel and Aaron Craft headed to the Ohio State bench for good Saturday with just under 2 minutes to play. Their faces dripped with sweat and, as each tried to catch his breath, they looked beaten.
They were. Badly.
Thad Matta, the coach of the eighth-ranked Buckeyes, was pulling the heart of his lineup from the game, throwing in the towel in a 74-55 loss to No. 11 Illinois he said he saw coming early. His hints were a flurry of turnovers, cold-as-ice shooting and an unlikely 16 points from Illini center Nnanna Egwu. The 6-foot-11 sophomore averaged 6.0 points a game coming in.
"We'd seen that he could shoot, but when he started knocking down 17-footers, it was like, 'Geez, this is really their day,'" Matta said.
The Buckeyes (11-3, 1-1 Big Ten), normally a low-turnover team, gave the ball away 11 times in the first half and 15 overall. They shot 33 percent from the field and weren't able to keep up with the Illini's defense.
Matta said he has things to work on, but isn't overly concerned with the Buckeyes' struggles.
"I'm not like panicking like, 'Oh my God,'" Matta said. This team has shown they can play some pretty good basketball. They just got to get the right mindset."
With the win the Illini (14-2, 1-1) bounced back from a stunning 68-61 loss to Purdue in the conference opener, and showed toughness the team lacked against the Boilermakers, coach John Groce said.
"Oh, I love it — that's toughness plays, passion, inspiring plays," Groce said. "Any time a guy sacrifices his body to make a play for his team, that's the highest level of teamism — I don't know if that's a word."
The win by Illinois came at the expense of Groce's former boss. Groce was an assistant to Matta at Ohio State before taking over as head coach at Ohio.
Brandon Paul led Illinois with 19 points and had seven rebounds. Tracy Abrams added 13 points and five assists, and reserve Joseph Bertrand scored 12 points. Egwu also had eight rebounds.
The Illini started fast and led 37-25 at halftime. They used a 13-2 run early in the second half to build a 50-27 lead.
Illinois' stingy defense shut down the Buckeyes, who turned the ball over 16 times.
Groce said the Buckeyes' turnovers were a gift his team used early.
"We got some points off turnovers in the first half that I think ignited us," he said, adding that he didn't expect Ohio State to cough up the ball. "No — in fact, I said before the game they're going to take care of the ball, that's what (Matta's) teams always do."
The efforts of Illini big men — Egwu, Sam McLaurin and Tyler Griffey — were a big part of Illinois' defensive success. Ohio State had just 10 points in the paint in the first half.
Thomas led Ohio State with 24 points, but beyond him the Buckeyes had no one to turn to for offense. Craft had a quiet 11 points and Lenzelle Smith Jr. finished with eight, all in the first half.
"They played good defense and we could never get that one bucket to kind of free us up a little bit, free our minds a little bit," Matta said.
Illinois added to its edge early in the second half with a 13-2 run. Bertrand finished it, driving to the basket and hitting a short jumper as the shot clock wound down for a 50-27 lead with 15:05 to play.
The Buckeyes scratched their way back within 60-46 with 6:37 left on a jumper by Thomas. It capped a 15-4 run that melted what had been a 25-point deficit at 56-31 and put the sellout crowd — still uneasy about just how good Illinois might be — on edge.
But Richardson answered Thomas' shot with a 3-pointer with 6:13 to play. That put the Illini up 63-46 and let the crowd roar with relief.
Paul followed that with two free throws and Egwu added a dunk that pushed the lead to 67-46 with 4:52 to play, and Ohio State was all but finished.
The offensive production from Paul was no surprise. He came into the game averaging a team-high 18.5 points a game. But Egwu's big game was out of the blue.
Egwu came into the game averaging 6.0 points and had never scored more than 12.
"The guards did a good job of finding me," he said. "It's all about just getting a good flow on offense, and that's what we did today."
Illinois opened up a 14-point lead midway through the first half, using a 12-2 run and taking advantage of poor shooting by the Buckeyes. Bertrand capped it with a jump shot in the paint for a 25-11 lead with 10:08 to play that charged up what had been a quiet crowd.
Ohio State now heads into a tough stretch — at Purdue, at home against No. 2 Michigan, and back on the road at Michigan State. But Matta said his team's letdown at Illinois — and the lack of anyone to help Thomas — isn't at this point a huge concern.
"We've got to look at this, we got to learn from it, but at the same token, we got to' prepare ourselves to play better basketball," he said.