After the No. 14-ranked Buckeyes knocked off Illinois 68-55 in front of a sold-out Value City Arena crowd (19,049) on Sunday afternoon, the team finished the regular season on a five-game winning streak to clinch the No. 2 seed in next week's Big Ten conference tournament
Whether Ohio State will earn a share of its fourth-consecutive Big Ten championship still remains to be seen.
No. 2 Indiana can win the conference outright with a win at No. 7 Michigan later this afternoon, but a Wolverines win would force a three-way tie atop the Big Ten standings. If both Michigan and Michigan State win – the Spartans play Northwestern this evening – those four teams share the conference crown.
But junior point guard Aaron Craft, who playfully refused to admit he'll be rooting for the Wolverines, said all the Buckeyes can do is wait.
"There's no point in worrying about what we have no control over," Craft said. "Obviously, we'd love for it to happen, but if it doesn't, it's out of our hands. We did what we needed to do."
Deshaun Thomas scored 19 points Craft added 14 to lead the Buckeyes (23-7, 13-5 Big Ten), who built a nine-point advantage at halftime before holding onto the win after a closely contested second half.
Brandon Paul scored 21 points and D.J. Richardson added 10 for Illinois (21-11, 8-10), a team still hoping to build an impressive enough resume to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament under first-year head coach John Groce.
"They're getting contributions from a lot of guys," Groce, a former assistant under OSU head coach Thad Matta, said of the Buckeyes. "I think they're starting to connect a little bit and play together. They're a good basketball team."
LaQuinton Ross made a layup with 12:24 remaining in the game to extend Ohio State's lead to 47-35, but the Buckeyes couldn't put Illinois away. Nnanna Egwu responded with a dunk on the next possession to bring Illinois back within 10, sparking a 9-4 run capped by a Tracy Abrams jumper to make the score 51-44 with 8:12 remaining.
Ohio State wouldn't allow Illinois to get any closer, scoring the next five points off of a Craft layup and a three-point play by big man Evan Ravenel, the team's lone senior honored during the Buckeyes' senior day ceremony prior to the game.
A layup by Paul put the Illini ahead 22-21 in a back-and-forth first half that saw nine lead changes. But when Thomas hit a tough turnaround jumper on the baseline to put the Buckeyes ahead 23-22 with 5:45 remaining in the first half, the lead didn't change for the rest of the game.
Thomas' jumper sparked Ohio State to a 12-2 run to close out the first half, a span during which Illinois' only points came in the form of two free throws by Paul. Meanwhile, Ohio State created the first separation of the game by locking down on defense and creating transition opportunities.
Shannon Scott forced a steal and passed it to Craft, who threw the ball over his head for a sprinting Thomas before finishing the transition layup to put Ohio State up 28-22 with 3:54 remaining in the half.
After two buckets from Scott during the next 2½ minutes, Sam Thompson spun in the lane on his way to the rim before being fouled with less than two seconds remaining in the half. Thompson made 1-of-2 free throw attempts to cap the run and set the halftime score at 33-24.
"It has been a heck of a stretch coming from where we started," Matta said. "They have kept practicing, kept the energy and kept their focus. I like where we are right now. Winning five-straight games is hard to do in college basketball."