Following Ohio State’s road loss Sunday to Purdue, head coach Thad Matta questioned his team’s toughness for the second time in three games. Asked to define the term one day later, Matta said it was an all-encompassing term that was hard to explain.
On one momentum-changing play, David Lighty provided a definition worthy of Webster’s.
His steal and emphatic jam at the other end produced a three-point play that helped thwart a second-half Illinois rally and propel his team to a 89- 70 victory.
Although the Buckeyes (26-2, 13-2 Big Ten) held a 15-point halftime lead, the visiting Fighting Illini (17-11, 7-8) used some sloppy play to their advantage and crawled back to within six points when Lighty took over.
Mired in a 4-for-22 shooting slump from beyond the arc entering the game, the fifth-year senior buried a trey to halt the Illinois skid. Two Illinois possessions later, he came up with a steal and converted a pair of free-throws at the other end to push his team’s lead to 54-43.
It was here that he delivered the dagger. Matched up on the defensive end with freshman Crandall Head – who made his first start of the season – Lighty used a swim move to reach around the guard and momentarily knock the ball loose. With Head’s momentum taking him away from the ball, Lighty charged into the backcourt and grabbed possession.
Streaking down the court, his eyes grew wider as the basket loomed ahead. Taking his final two steps and leaping, Lighty threw down a one-handed dunk right as Head’s outstretched arm drew contact with his face. Landing on his feet as the crowd rose to its own, Lighty screamed in celebration.
“It was just an old play,” he said. “Somebody is beating you going around the corner and the ball is always on the outside. I just got lucky and reached around a picked it. I didn’t even know he was behind me. Luckily I made the dunk. It gave us a momentum boost.”
He hit the free throw to make it 57-43 with 13:26 remaining, and the visitors drew no closer than nine points the rest of the way.
Lighty did not stop there, though. Following the three-point play, he would score his team’s next five points to give him 13 straight for the Buckeyes. His final basket during the stretch came on a three-pointer with 11:39 left and made it a 62-45 lead.
After the game, Illinois head coach Bruce Weber lavished the Buckeye with praise.
“I’ve said since the beginning I think he’s the MVP (of the Big Ten),” he said. “Probably wont’ get it because people aren’t smart enough. He’s their heart and soul. He just took over the game. He does everything you need to do to win the game. The other guys are great but Lighty to me is their heart and soul and to me the reason why they win.”
During the run, he came up with three steals that he turned into baskets at the other end, and finished with six for the game.
“I think this with David: I think they should put a statue in front of the Schottenstein Center of David Lighty and what he’s meant to the program,” Matta said. “His performance there in the second half was high level.”
He finished with a game-high 21 points, the most he has ever scored against a Big Ten foe. Seventeen came in the second half.
The Buckeyes bounced back from having suffered their second loss in three games. Both came on the road against Purdue and Wisconsin.
With a 48-hour turnaround, Matta kept things light Monday and pushed his players just hard enough to work up a sweat. The coach said he considered canceling practice completely in an effort to help his players recover from a physical contest against the Boilermakers.
In the time they were together, Matta said he liked the team's focus.
“If you dwell on one game in this league you’ll tank,” he said. “I give our guys a lot of credit.”
Although it was Lighty’s game in the second half, it was junior guard William Buford who ruled the first half and helped OSU close the stanza in a big way. After freshman point guard Aaron Craft dribbled the clock down to less than 10 seconds remaining, he found Buford with a pass as he cut to the free-throw line.
Catching the ball with about four seconds remaining, Buford saw at least two Illinois defenders converging on his position. Rather than force a runner over their outstretched arms, the junior spied an open teammate in the right corner. His pass hit senior guard Jon Diebler right in the chest, and the Big Ten’s all-time leader in three-pointers buried it to send the crowd into a frenzy and set the score at 47-32.
The Buckeyes built their early lead by doing what they did not do two days prior at Purdue: take care of the basketball. In the loss to the Boilermakers, OSU committed 18 turnovers – its second-highest total of the Big Ten season. This time out, the Buckeyes did not have a single turnover in the first half.
Meanwhile, the Illini committed nine that led to 18 points.
That Illinois was in it at all at halftime was a minor miracle owing to some surprising three-point shooting from an unlikely source. Senior center Mike Tisdale – a career 33.3 percent three-point shooter who had missed his last seven from behind the arc – connected on all four of his attempts in the first half against the Buckeyes. Each one drew a louder groan from the OSU fans than the one that preceded it.
He was part of a three-point barrage from the Fighting Illini, who were 8 of 9 (88.9 percent) from deep in the first half but just 4 of 14 (28.8 percent) from inside the arc. Not surprisingly, OSU outscored its visitors 26-4 in the paint and held an 18-0 advantage in points scored off of turnovers.
Head and sophomore Brandon Paul earned the starts in place of senior Demetri McCamey and sophomore D.J. Richardson. Weber said he liked the spark McCamey could provide off the bench, and he finished with 15 points.
Forward Mike Davis led the Illini with 18 points while Tisdale finished with 14.
Buford missed all five of his second-half shots to finish with 17 points as one of five Buckeyes in double figures. Diebler had 13 while Craft and freshman Jared Sullinger put up a double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds.