CHICAGO — It takes tenacity and physicality to handle how Illinois plays defense. Hours before a game Wednesday night at the United Center, Ohio State got a significant boost in both areas when freshman Luther Muhammad was declared healthy and available.
It also takes players who can rise to the occasion.
This time, after ending the first half in a way that by almost any objective measure could be described as disastrous for the Buckeyes, it was Keyshawn Woods. With Muhammad at his side and Kaleb Wesson anchoring things in the post, the graduate transfer scored 18 points, took consecutive charges during a game-changing second-half run and willed the No. 19 Buckeyes to a 77-67 win over the Illini in men’s basketball.
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One game after he went scoreless against Minnesota on Sunday night, Woods said it was time for him to stop picking his shots and start taking them.
“It stuck with me for two days,” he said. “The days we were off, I was mad. I’ve been playing for a long time. My mentality is if you have one bad game, let’s try not to make it two. You have two, let’s try not to make it three.”
The Buckeyes (8-1, 2-0 Big Ten) led 30-22 and looked well-prepared for and comfortable against Illinois’ pressure. But for the final 7:47 of the half, they made just one more field goal while committing eight turnovers as the Illini went on a 16-4 run and took a 38-34 lead into halftime.
Things spiraled for the Buckeyes during a stretch in which freshman Duane Washington Jr. was yanked for former walk-on Joey Lane after throwing a behind-the-back pass into the media section, coach Chris Holtmann earn his first technical foul of the season and turnovers on consecutive possessions by senior guard C.J. Jackson.
“We did not play with great poise in the first half, and we did not coach with great poise in the first half,” Holtmann said.
Still down 51-48 to Illinois (2-7, 0-2) six minutes into the second half, Muhammad was fouled after getting an offensive rebound to put the Buckeyes in the bonus with 13:53 to play. He hit both free throws, and Washington scored on an underhanded scoop from inside the paint to give Ohio State the lead at 52-51 with 13:25 to go.
It was the start 6-0 run that grew into a 20-4 surge that pushed it out of reach.
“Listen: we just played smarter in the second half,” Holtmann said. “I’m really proud of that.”
Muhammad’s jersey did not make the trip, so he had to wear a No. 12 without his name on the back. Scoonie Penn, a member of the staff, passed down his old number to him and predicted a big game after he was officially cleared following the day’s shoot-around.
“If I had to pick a game to come back to, I would love it to be this one,” Muhammad said. “This is a tough, competitive game and it was very physical. In order to make sure I’m 100 percent, I felt like this game was the game.”