Ninth-ranked Ohio State, which entered the game shooting a chilly 36.7 percent for their previous three outings, connected on 11 of its first 12 attempts from the floor and proceeded to run Illinois out of Value City Arena to the tune of an 83-67 blowout Tuesday night.
The Buckeyes, who shot 70.8 percent (17 for 24) in the first half, wound up shooting 65.3 percent (32 for 49) for the game. It was by far their best shooting performance of the Big Ten season and brought a huge smile of relief to head coach Thad Matta's face.
"It was obviously good to see the ball go in early," Matta told reporters after the game. "I thought we had good shots early, got out and got some easy buckets because of our defense. It was delightful to see, trust me."
The victory allowed OSU to keep pace in the Big Ten regular-season championship race. Ohio State moved its overall record to 23-5 and its conference mark to 11-4, one-half game behind Michigan State. The sixth-ranked Spartans are scheduled to play at Minnesota tomorrow night.
Meanwhile, Illinois (16-12, 5-10) suffered its sixth consecutive loss and ninth defeat in its last 10 games. While the Buckeyes were burning the nets in the early going, the Fighting Illini were the cold opposite. As they fell into an early 28-8 hole, they made only 3 of their first 12 shots and wound up 8 for 27 (29.6 percent) in the first half.
How bad was Illinois in the first half? Junior guard Brandon Paul, who scored a career-high 43 points during his team's 79-74 win over Ohio State in Champaign on Jan. 10, missed a wide-open dunk at the 3:20 mark. Paul went 2 for 7 in the first half, 2 for 9 for the game, and finished with nine points. He made 11 of 15 field-goal attempts in the first meeting with OSU.
Illinois head coach Bruce Weber said his team got caught a little flat-footed during the Buckeyes' early run, but traced the problem to his team's lack of defense.
"Defense carried us early and helped us win games, and now it's not there," Weber said. "A lot of things can happen and there are still wins out there for us, but unless the pride in defense changes, nothing is going to change."
Sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas led three Buckeyes in double figures with 19 points. Senior guard William Buford tallied 17 and sophomore point guard Aaron Craft added 11 points, five rebounds, five assists and three steals.
Sophomore big man Jared Sullinger had an off-night offensively, finishing with nine points and six rebounds before fouling out late in the contest. The six rebounds still represented a team-high and tied Illinois guard D.J. Richardson for game-high honors.
Illinois was led by center Meyers Leonard, who totaled a game-high 21 points. Leonard made 7 of his 12 shots from the field. The rest of the Illini went 18 for 51, a combined 35.3 percent.
Ohio State was the early aggressor thanks to its hot hand from the outside. The Buckeyes used an early 19-4 run in the first 6 ½ minutes to fire up the announced VCA crowd of 18,481 and essentially put the game on ice.
Illinois tried to make a run of its own when Paul hit a jumper and Leonard bagged a pair of free throws to make it 19-8 at the 12:42 mark, but OSU reeled off another nine-point run for a 20-point lead at 28-8 with 10:50 remaining until the break.
The lead eventually reached 22 after back-to-back threes from Smith and Thomas made it 40-18 with 4:26 to go in the first half, but Illinois made it semi-respectable by closing on an 8-2 run to set the halftime score at 42-26.
It was more of the same in the second half as the Illini missed their first four shots after intermission and Ohio State built its lead back past 20. The Buckeyes' advantage went as high as 26 on two occasions, the second after sophomore guard Jordan Sibert hit a runner in the lane at the 4:36 mark to make it 75-49.
Some sloppy play by OSU reserves in the final minute and a half allowed Illinois to finish the game on a 10-1 run and pare the final margin to 16.