Thad Matta knew how different the night could have been.
Asked if he realized what the consequences of a fifth consecutive loss would have been, the Ohio State head coach admitted that he’s no stranger to playing the ‘what if?’ game. So it’s a good thing for Matta that the No. 17 Buckeyes (16-4, 3-4) walked away from their Thursday night matchup with Illinois (13-7, 2-5) with a 62-55 victory, otherwise he would’ve been left with a whole new set of hypotheticals to play over in his head.
“Who knows how different it could’ve been if we could’ve knocked down that layup at Michigan State?” Matta rhetorically asked, referencing what was the first of OSU’s four losses on the year. “Up nine the next game at home with a four-on-one. This was a big win.”
The Buckeyes regained their stroke -- and perhaps some confidence -- in a second half that saw them make 54.2 percent of their shots. Ohio State was led by forward LaQuinton Ross, who scored 18 points on 6-of-11 shooting, and also enjoyed a 16-point effort from senior guard Lenzelle Smith Jr., who made just 13 of his 39 shot attempts during the Buckeyes’ four-game skid.
“Him going 4-for-8, shooting 50 percent (from 3-point range) in this game, probably takes him up to about six percent in the Big Ten, so we are jacked up,” Matta joked of Smith’s slump. “I’m happy for Lenzelle because he’s been very diligent the last few days, in there working and trying to get everything right. When you see that, that’s what excites you as a coach, and you’re happy for him.”
Despite the Buckeyes’ strong showing in the second half, the opening stanza wasn’t pretty for either team, with Ohio State shooting just 29.2 percent from the field and Illinois taking a 25-24 lead with a 38.5 percent effort. The Buckeyes appeared to be in trouble of dropping their fifth straight game well into the second half, until a 9-0 run gave Ohio State a 51-46 advantage with 3:51 remaining in the game.
Ross scored five points during that stretch and Shannon Scott added the other four, but it was the Buckeyes defense that served as their catalyst, forcing four Fighting Illini turnovers. Matta gave the praise for that to senior guard Aaron Craft, who he felt regained his old form with an 11-point, six-rebound, five-assist, two-steal effort on Thursday.
“I told Aaron before the game as we were going through match-ups, I said, ‘I need my Aaron Craft back,’” Matta said. “He instigated a lot of that in terms of his activity.”
Craft also played a key role in shutting down Illini guard Rayvonte Rice, who was held scoreless on an 0-for-8 shooting performance. Guard Joseph Bertrand led the way for Illinois with 19 points on 7-of-10 shooting and was joined in double-digits by forwards Jon Ekey (11) and Nnanna Egwu (10).
With the win, Ohio State moves from eighth to seventh place in the Big Ten, while Illinois finds itself on a five-game losing streak, dropping to 10th place in the league.
The Buckeyes will now enjoy a much needed six-day break, returning to action next Wednesday, when they’ll host the league’s last-place team in Penn State.
For now, however, Ohio State is excited to have a winning taste back in its mouth, after a game that could prove to be a pivotal one in the Buckeyes’ season.
“We tried to do the best to put the losing streak behind us,” Craft said. “We wanted to find a way to get better before this game in practice and watching film and we were able to do that. We were a tougher basketball team down the stretch than we have been.”