Illinois’ defense doesn’t make simple concepts like ball reversals or basic passes. After struggling against it for significant stretches, No. 17 Ohio State trailed with barely five minutes to play when it worked the ball to the left block and found no path to the basket.
First came the quick pass to the corner, which was nearly intercepted by a Fighting Illini defender. Same for the pass to the wing, and again for the crosscourt feed from C.J. Jackson to Keita Bates-Diop. But when the ball got to the junior, he made the three-pointer to tie the score with 5:04 to play.
“I loved the ball movement,” coach Chris Holtmann said.
Two possessions later, Kaleb Wesson scored in the lane with two seconds left on the shot clock to push Ohio State ahead, and the Buckeyes never again trailed in a 75-67 win over the Fighting Illini in front of a season-high crowd of 18,743 at Value City Arena.
It was an atypical moment in a game Holtmann said the Buckeyes (20-5, 11-1 Big Ten) approached knowing it would be one “of imperfection.”
An Illinois team that was third nationally in defensive turnover percentage came out blazing, opening up a 30-15 lead in hitting 11 of their first 17 shots while forcing six turnovers in the first nine minutes.
One day after six ranked teams lost to unranked opponents, Illinois (12-12, 2-9) had a traveling “Orange Krush” cheering section three rows deep in section 305 roaring and a partisan crowd dotted with more than a dozen former Ohio State team captains antsy.
Then Ohio State started switching on every screen, and the Buckeyes kept the Illini without a field goal for the final 10:11 of the half while closing on a 19-0 run.
“That was midway through the first half,” Bates Diop said. “We were worried about it, but we knew we were going to come back.”
Despite the drought, Illinois was “doing backflips” in the locker room, coach Brad Underwood said, because it was only a four-point deficit. And although Bates-Diop continued to score, the Illini kept pace and led by four points with 6:47 to play at 60-56.
Bates-Diop finished with a career-high 35 points and added 13 rebounds, making him the sixth Big Ten player in the last 20 years to hit those figures in a conference game.
Freshman center Kaleb Wesson pulled down a season-best seven offensive rebounds and 10 total and added 10 points against one of the nation’s top offensive rebounding teams.
“I was working hard and the ball bounced my way,” he said.
Ohio State has reached 20 wins in the fewest number of games since it started the 2011-12 season 20-3. It now turns its attention ahead to a game Wednesday at No. 3 Purdue, which has won a nation's-best 19 straight games and leads the Buckeyes by one game in the Big Ten standings.
“They’re clearly a team that can reach a Final Four and win a national championship,” Holtmann said.