E.J. Liddell's career game leads No. 21 Ohio State to road win against No. 14 Illinois

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State's E.J. Liddell shoots against Illinois' Giorgi Bezhanishvili during the second half. Liddell scored a career-high 26 points.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Ohio State players were going through their final layups and AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” was blaring at the State Farm Center.

From his spot near midcourt, Duane Washington Jr. punctuated the hook, yelling “Thunder! Thunder!” as he warmed up with his Buckeyes teammates.

Then, in their first trip to play Illinois on its home court in more than four years, the No. 21 Buckeyes (11-3, 5-3 Big Ten) summoned the thunder, some rain and all available elements to conjure up an 87-81 win against the No. 14 Fighting Illini (10-4, 5-3).

Down low, Ohio State matched Illinois’ physicality. From the perimeter, the Buckeyes rained down threes and deep jumpers, particularly from E.J. Liddell. And when it was over, Ohio State had its third straight win and most impressive of the season.

"it’s my home-state school, but that’s not what motivated me today," said Liddell, who did not make a field goal in Wednesday's home win against Northwestern. "It was my teammates. I didn’t have the best game against Northwestern and that’s why they stayed in it most of the time."

Against the preseason pick for Big Ten champion in the unofficial media poll conducted jointly by The Dispatch and the Athletic, Ohio State took the lead on its first possession of the game and never trailed from there. A 15-point halftime lead dipped to six, but the Buckeyes really started to pull away with a 56-48 lead and 12 minutes to play.

Washington fouled Illinois center Kofi Cockburn underneath the basket with 11:58 to play, and upon review he was issued a Flagrant 1 foul. That gave Cockburn two free throws, which he missed, and Illinois maintained possession. The Illini worked it down low to the big man again, but Ohio State freshman center Zed Key took a charge on Cockburn to end the possession.

Then at the other end, Justin Ahrens hit a three-pointer. Instead of potentially being ahead by only three, it was a 59-48 Ohio State lead and although it would get closer the visitors would hold on from there by hitting their final seven free throws in the final 47.9 seconds to fend off the late Illinois charge.

"This is a tremendous team," Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said of the Illini. "They can overwhelm you with their length, their athleticism, their size." 

Liddell, one of only two players to win consecutive Mr. Basketball awards in Illinois high school history, was the star. After recording his first career double-double last season in his lone game against a school that heavily recruited him, Liddell finished with a career-high 26 points.

The Buckeyes have now won eight straight games against Illinois while being ranked.

Ohio State was again without guards CJ Walker (torn ligaments in his right hand) and Jimmy Sotos (right shoulder), and without them Justice Sueing reprised his role as the starting point guard.

Ohio State's Justin Ahrens hits a three-pointer during the second half against Illinois. Ahrens hit 3 of 5 from three-point range and finished with 11 points.

Illinois scored on the opening possession when the 7-foot, 285-pound Cockburn buried the 6-7, 240-pound Liddell in the post, but Washington answered with a three-pointer to give the Buckeyes a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. His shot started a 10-0, tone-setting run for Ohio State, with the final five points coming on a jumper and a three-pointer from Liddell all over the imposing Cockburn.

The Illini would answer and pull even, but with the scored tied at 15 the Buckeyes put together a 15-0 run during the next three minutes as the Illinois coaches yelled at their players about a lack of defensive effort. Liddell in particular shined, again hitting a jumper and a three over Cockburn to close the run, and the lead would grow as high as 18 during the half.

But with Ohio State ahead 37-19, the Buckeyes would commit five of their six first-half turnovers during a three-minute span. While Illinois didn’t do much with them – Ohio State still took a 43-28 lead into the break – it prevented a team that shot 53.1% from the field overall (17 for 32) and 63.6% (7 for 11) from three from stretching its lead even further.