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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Illinois was hoping to stop its extended slump and build momentum for a strong finish when it hosted No. 22 Ohio State on Saturday night.
Instead, the Illini turned in a befuddling offensive performance.
Illinois shot just 28.3 percent from the field and had 13 turnovers in a 48-39 loss to the Buckeyes.
"Obviously our offense was anemic today," coach John Groce said. "I thought Ohio State had a lot to do with that. I thought they imposed their will on the defensive end, especially in the second half."
Tracy Abrams had 13 points for Illinois (14-12, 3-10 Big Ten), which has lost 10 of 11. Nnanna Egwu had a career-high 14 rebounds but fouled out late.
"I give those guys a little bit of credit — they play hard, they play smart," Abrams said. "(But) it's a matter of you being tough and getting it where you need to go."
Aaron Craft led the Buckeyes (20-6, 7-6) with 14 points, even after spending two long stretches on the bench in foul trouble.
"It was rough — I'm sitting on the bench. It's tough when you don't have a say," Craft said. "My teammates did a great job, controlling the perimeter. Guys just did a great job executing, finding ways to keep it close and that's what we needed."
LaQuinton Ross added nine points for Ohio State, which trailed 23-20 at halftime. The Buckeyes made 38 percent of their shots.
Matta remained confident despite the slow start, delivering a positive message at the break.
"We're down three," Matta said he told his players. "Trust me, something's gonna fall for us."
And it did.
Ross and Craft each hit a 3-pointer as Ohio State started the second half with a 10-2 run.
The Buckeyes finished with 10 steals. Shannon Scott had five and Craft had three.
"I thought the 10 steals in that type of game, that's a large number," Groce said.
Illinois scored just nine points over the first 15:35 minutes of the second half.
While each team struggled with its shooting, defense also played a key role.
The Illini paid close attention to Ross, who was averaging a team-high 14.6 points. He had just one field goal in the second half and was 3 for 8 from the field for the game.
Rayvonte Rice, Illinois' leading scorer with 16.8 a game coming in, had trouble getting open for much of the night. He had seven late points to finish with 11.
"Honestly, we were just playing him straight up," Matta said. "We didn't do anything special or strategically, just guard him."
Illinois' shooting percentage was a sickly 29 percent in the first half. But the Illini still had the lead at the break, using their defense and a flurry of early 3-pointers to grab the advantage.
But that poor shooting percentage kept getting lower as the game went along.
The Illini hit just one of their first nine shots in the second half, a seven-minute stretch during which the Buckeyes grabbed a 30-25 lead.
Then the Buckeyes pulled away. Amedeo Della Valle had a layup and Marc Loving made consecutive jump shots to put the Buckeyes up 38-29.
Loving had eight points. He had gone a stretch of six games without making a field goal.
"We rode those guys," Matta said of his reserves, who gave Ohio State 17 points. "They were dog tired and I didn't care. I was leaving them out there."
While the Buckeyes managed to find a little offense, Illinois was missing — jumpers and finger rolls and even a dunk attempt by Jon Ekey that skidded harmlessly across the top of the rim.
Illinois went 8:14 without a field goal before Abrams tossed in a 3-pointer with 4:25 to play, making it 42-32.
Follow David Mercer on Twitter: https://twitter.com/davidmercerap