Buckeyes go ice-cold down stretch, fall to Illinois on senior day

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State Buckeyes forward Kyle Young (25) blocks Illinois Fighting Illini center Kofi Cockburn (21) during the first half of their game at Value City Arena in Columbus, Ohio on March 6, 2021.

When E.J. Liddell splashed a second consecutive three-pointer to give No. 4 Ohio State a four-point lead with 3:46 left, the Buckeyes looked to be surging against No. 7 Illinois.

Instead, it was the high-water mark. 

With a chance to snap a three-game losing streak and earn a third win against a top-10 team this season, the Buckeyes (18-8, 12-8 Big Ten) missed their final 10 shots as the Fighting Illini (20-6, 16-4) closed with a 9-0 run in a 73-68 win on senior day at Value City Arena.

Buckeyes basketball:Ohio State's E.J. Liddell to play in front of '#1 fan' when Buckeyes host Illinois

Ayo Dosunmu’s driving layup with 44.7 seconds left was the difference. It fouled Justice Sueing out of the game, and the free throw gave the Illini the lead at 71-68.

"There was a few times (late) we were getting good looks," Ohio State senior Kyle Young said. "We were trying to play through the paint, just get the team’s best shot. Stuff wasn’t falling for us. We wanted to try to be more forceful, get inside and play inside-out but we weren’t able to do that."

Five of the final 10 missed shots were from junior Duane Washington Jr. As the Buckeyes gathered along the baseline to listen to speeches from seniors CJ Walker and Young, a teary eyed Washington stood apart from the group and wandered aimlessly while clutching a towel.

At the conclusion, he headed directly to the locker room without speaking to anyone.

"He’s fine," coach Chris Holtmann said. "He’s just disappointed. He wanted to win for his seniors. He was disappointed. I don’t know what reaction you want a young man to make after the game. He loves CJ. He loves Kyle. That was probably part of it.

"He was so emotional because he wanted it so bad for those guys."

With the loss, the Buckeyes will be the No. 5 seed in the Big Ten tournament. They will enter postseason play on a four-game losing streak.

After falling behind briefly by double digits during the first half, Ohio State would pull ahead late thanks to sophomore and noted Illinois-slayer Liddell. The Belleville (Illinois) West native, who picked the Buckeyes over the Illini and others, entered the game averaging 21.5 points in two career games against Illinois but had only five at the half.

Maybe he was saving them for when it seemed to count the most. With the game tied at 56, Liddell scored 10 of Ohio State’s next 12 points to give the Buckeyes a 68-64 lead, but it wouldn’t be enough.

"He missed some clean looks (early) he missed in the second half," Holtmann said. "We put him in a few different situations there in the second half."

Liddell led the Buckeyes with 19 points on 8-for-17 shooting. Washington had 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting and was 2 for 8 from three and Sueing battled through a groin injury to finish with 15 points and eight rebounds.

Dosunmu and freshman Andre Curbelo finished with 19 points each to lead Illinois.

Down by nine points during the final minute of the first half, Ohio State closed with a quick burst and climbed back into the game with an 11-0 run spanning the two quarters. Walker, capping the run with a layup through traffic, flexed his left bicep and headed back up the court with Ohio State ahead 43-41.

Befitting a game between two top-10 teams who have been in the conversation for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for most of the season, it would stay close from there for the duration.

After honoring seniors Young and Walker and senior managers Joey Cloran, Devan Morrow and Mike Mastroianni, the Buckeyes quickly fell behind 6-0 but responded with an 11-0 run capped by a three-point play from Sueing with 16:10 left in the half and the game would settle in from there.

Illinois would take control midway through the half after a Sueing free throw gave the Buckeyes a 17-14 lead with 13:13 left. A 9-0 run during which Dosunmu had four points and an assist and Cockburn hit a left-handed hook shot put the visitors ahead 23-17, and the lead would grow as high as 10 points when Andre Curbelo hit two free throws to make it a 36-26 lead with 4:25 to play.

The Buckeyes still trailed by nine in the final minute after a Dosunmu three-point play, but Justin Ahrens swished a three from the right corner with 50 seconds to play and, after a rare Curbelo miss, Walker would misfire on a three-point attempt in the final seconds only to see Liddell snatch the rebound and lay it in before the buzzer to set the halftime score at 41-37.

It was a big bucket for Liddell, who after scoring 26 points in the first meeting between these teams this season had only five at the half and didn’t score until he hit a three with 4:09 left in the half.

At the half, the Illini were shooting 62.1% (18 for 29) from the floor despite only being 1 for 6 (16.7%) from three in large part because they were 11 for 15 on layups.