Thomas leads No. 14 Ohio State past Illinois 68-55
COLUMBUS – First, No. 14 Ohio State won a game. Then, the Buckeyes watched a share of the Big Ten championship slip away.
Hours after Ohio State beat Illinois 68-55 on Sunday behind Deshaun Thomas’ 19 points, the Buckeyes missed out on a piece of the conference title when No. 2 Indiana overcame a four-point deficit in the final minute to eke past No. 7 Michigan 72-71.
The victory gave the Hoosiers their first outright Big Ten crown in two decades. Ohio State (23-7, 13-5) had to be content with a strong stretch run and a close second-place finish. Its string of conference titles ended at three in a row.
“I like where we are now,” Buckeyes coach Thad Matta said after his team’s win. “With everything that’s transpired in college basketball, we won five straight games (to close the regular season). You hope this team finishes in the final poll in the top 10. We’ve done that a lot of times now, which is hard to do in college basketball.”
Beyond that, the Buckeyes will get ready for the conference tournament this week in Chicago where they’ll be the No. 2 seed and play Friday night in the quarterfinals against the winner of seventh-seeded Purdue and 11th-seeded Nebraska.
Point guard Aaron Craft said the Buckeyes took care of their business and were resigned that their fate was in another team’s hands.
“There’s no point worrying about something that we have no control over,” said Craft, who had 14 points and six assists and, as usual, created havoc on defense for the Buckeyes in their win over Illinois. “Obviously, we would love for (a Michigan win) to happen. But if it doesn’t, it’s out of our hands. We did what we needed to do.”
Three weeks ago Sunday, the thought of Ohio State even being included in the title talk was almost inconceivable. The Buckeyes were routed 71-49 at Wisconsin, a loss that knocked them two games behind the Big Ten leaders with just five left. More than that, it seemed like a psychological blow to a team that came home humiliated.
“As I told them, a lot of people had this team dead to rights a month ago,” Matta said. “And they haven’t lost since then.”
Just in the past five days, the Buckeyes played No. 2 Indiana, which only needed a win on its home court to clinch its first outright Big Ten title in two decades. Instead, the Buckeyes hung a 67-58 upset on the Hoosiers.
Then on Sunday the Buckeyes took on an Illinois team that had manhandled them in early January, 74-55.
“You look at what we had to do just in terms of this week, going to Bloomington and you ride the emotional high coming off (the win there),” Matta said. “Then you’re playing (an Illinois) team that was at one point in the top 10 in the country. From the standpoint of what these guys have been able to do, I couldn’t be prouder of them.”
Thomas, the Big Ten’s leading scorer at 19.8 points a game, had another strong game while possibly playing his final home game for Ohio State.
“We’ll think about that decision at the end of the (NCAA) tournament,” said Thomas, a junior who almost left for the NBA draft a year ago. “Right now, there’s a lot more basketball left. I’m just going to enjoy my time and try to get to the Final Four. That’s all I’m worried about now.”
The Buckeyes beat the Illini (21-11, 8-10) by overcoming a stalemate after the first 13 minutes, closing the half on a 12-2 run and then holding off any threats at the end.
“The end of the first half, they made a run on us and got a nice little lead going into halftime,” said Brandon Paul, who led the Illini with 21 points. “That definitely boosted their confidence. Then we didn’t find ways to stop them down the stretch.”
Illinois pulled as close as 51-44 on consecutive 3-pointers by Paul and Myke Henry.
But then Craft, who has broken out of a subpar offensive season with several big scoring efforts, drove the lane and banked in a layup in traffic. After an Illini miss, Thomas fed Ravenel for a three-point play.
Craft then rebounded at the other end and tossed in a 3 late in the shot clock and the lead was 15 with less than six minutes left.
“It looks like from watching film they’re playing the best that they’ve played,” said first-year Illinois coach John Groce, a longtime assistant to Matta at Ohio State and former Ohio University head coach. “They’re getting contributions from a lot of guys. They’re starting to connect a little bit and play together.”
The Illini will play ninth-seeded Minnesota on Thursday in the opening round of the conference tournament.
Ohio State’s winning streak provides some powerful momentum – for the Big Ten tournament and beyond.
“I think it matters because you have the momentum,” Ravenel said of the five straight wins. “You’ve got the taste of winning in your mouth and you want to keep it there. You just want to keep playing, and keep winning.”