Moments after Ohio State blew out Iowa on the road Saturday, Thad Matta decided it was best to hold his opinion when asked if the Buckeyes were past their early-season road woes.
The Buckeyes head coach wanted to see what his team did at Illinois – perceived to be an even bigger road test – just three days later before issuing his thoughts on the matter.
As it turned out, the No. 5 Buckeyes fell to the Illini 79-74 Tuesday night in Assembly Hall, making it only obvious that Matta would find concern about his team’s ability to play its best basketball away from Columbus. After all, the Buckeyes (15-3, 3-2 Big Ten) have now lost all three games away from Value City Arena.
However, Matta may find his Buckeyes’ defeat was more of a matter being in the wrong place at the wrong time – when Illinois’ guard Brandon Paul posted one of the most electrifying individual performances of the college basketball season.
Paul scored a career-high 43 points – the third most in Illini history – to help Illinois (15-3, 4-1) pick up a crucial win in conference play and an added bullet point on its NCAA Tournament resume.
Though Paul entered the game shooting 28.4 percent from beyond the arc, the junior guard knocked down 8-of-10 attempts from long range, including a fade away shot with Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft’s hand in his face to give the Illini a four-point lead with less than a minute remaining in the contest.
After making that crucial three-pointer to put his team up by two possessions, Paul sealed the game for Illinois by making all four free throw attempts in the final seconds of the contest to extend the Illini’s winning streak to three.
Ohio State was led in scoring by sophomore Deshaun Thomas, who posted 23 points on 8-of-12 shooting, and sophomore big man Jared Sullinger had 21 points, five rebounds and three steals.
The Buckeyes, who were coming off two conference victories won by at least 29 points, had their chances to steal the game on the road. The score was tied in the final five minutes twice, but Paul continually made Ohio State pay from long range.
Paul knocked down a three with two minutes remaining in the game to give Illinois the 69-66 lead, a bucket that was answered by a score and a foul by Sullinger on the next Ohio State possession. However, Sullinger had a rare miss from the free throw line to prevent the Buckeyes from getting even yet again with 1:43 remaining in the game.
Paul drew a foul on the next possession and knocked down two free throws, increasing the Illini’s lead to 71-68 with 1:26 remaining. Again, the Buckeyes answered with a nice dish from Craft to Thomas for the easy layup to get back within one point.
But Paul refused to go away on his team’s home floor and his eighth make from beyond the arc was the shot that put Ohio State away for good. Paul scored Illinois' final 15 points of the game.
Illinois big man Meyers Leonard added 14 points and Joseph Bertrand and D.J. Richardson scored 10 points each.
Ohio State senior guard William Buford, who was celebrating his birthday, scored 15 points. Craft added 12 for the Buckeyes.
The Buckeyes return home and face No. 7 Indiana at Value City Arena on Sunday, giving Ohio State a chance to avenge its loss suffered in Bloomington on New Year’s Eve.
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