Buckeyes battle, but Illinois prevails in overtime Big Ten title-game thriller

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra

INDIANAPOLIS – The Illinois fans assembled in the largest mass permissible this year. Denied a Big Ten regular season title in a COVID-altered year, they flooded into a socially distanced Lucas Oil Stadium for their coronation – the chance to bring the conference tournament trophy back with them to Champaign.

They would get it, but the Buckeyes made them fight for every piece of confetti. 

The final, moments before the NCAA Tournament selection show got underway: No. 2 seed Illinois 91, No. 5 seed Ohio State 88. In overtime.

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Duane Washington Jr.'s layup with 2:50 in overtime gave him 32 points, a new Big Ten record for its title game, and put Ohio State ahead 81-80. But Illinois would get two free throws from Kofi Cockburn and a jumper from Andre Curbelo to pull away and prevail.

Ohio State guard Duane Washington Jr. (4) shoots over Illinois center Kofi Cockburn (21) in an NCAA college basketball championship game at the Big Ten Conference tournament in Indianapolis, Sunday, March 14, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Just getting to overtime took theatrics. Down 77-74 with 33.9 seconds left, Ohio State put the ball in Justice Sueing's hands on a drive. He missed, collected his own rebound and scored while being fouled with 23.6 seconds left. His tying free throw bounced three times before falling, giving Illinois one final possession to win it in regulation.

Ayo Dosunmu missed a three-pointer and E.J. Liddell blocked Cockburn after he nabbed the offensive rebound to force overtime. It was Ohio State's second overtime game in three days.

After trailing by as many as 17 during the first half, Ohio State fought back and when CJ Walker scored with 5:33 remaining it gave the Buckeyes their first lead of the afternoon at 67-65. It came one possession after a Washington Jr. three-pointer pulled them even for the first time since the opening possessions, and the small-but-mighty Ohio State fan contingent was loving it.

Illinois would respond on a driving layup from Curbelo to reclaim the lead and then a basket from Trent Frazier to go ahead again at 69-67 before the Buckeyes again answered the bell.

Ohio State had pulled within two on a pair of occasions during the opening minutes of the second half. Both times, Illinois answered with its big man – the other one. With first-team all-Big Ten center Kofi Cockburn on the bench with three fouls, Giorgi Bezhanishvili would answer with points off of offensive rebounds to push it back to a four-point deficit and start a personal mini-run.

Starting with his two free throws after an offensive rebound with 15:05 to play made it a 47-43 Illinois lead, Bezhanishvili answered a pair of Sueing free throws with a layup after another offensive rebound. He would score on four straight possessions, all of which saw him nab an offensive rebound and the final two of which were three-point plays.

It helped key a 10-1 Illinois lead that put Ohio State down by double figures again and set up yet another comeback.

Ohio State guard Duane Washington Jr. shoots over Illinois guard Trent Frazier.

The last team to win four straight games and capture a Big Ten tournament championship was Michigan, which won the 2018 tournament at Madison Square Garden as a No. 5 seed. It marked the second straight year the Wolverines had achieved that feat after also winning the 2017 tournament at the Verizon Center in Washington D.C. as a No. 8 seed.

For most of the first half, it looked headed for a blowout – much to the delight of the decidedly pro-Illinois crowd, which splashed orange in every available section and made its presence felt. Clearly fatigued, Ohio State would not connect on a field goal until Justice Sueing scored with 13:27 to play to pull the Buckeyes with 13-7. They wouldn’t make another field goal until 8:26 remained, when Duane Washington Jr. drove the right block and finished a layup to make it a 27-12 Illinois lead. Until that shot, Ohio State had missed 15 of its first 16 shots and scored eight of its 10 points via the free-throw line.

But the Washington drive got things going. Freshman Zed Key scored on a right-handed hook over Kofi Cockburn on the next possession, and Ohio State would close the half by hitting 10 of its final 12 shots in the final 8:26 to turn what had been as much as a 17-point deficit into a 40-35 Illini lead at the break, and it was nearly closer. After Washington hit a three with 23 seconds left, freshman Gene Brown deflected an Ayo Dosunmu pass that CJ Walker corralled. The senior barreled upcourt and got off a pull-up jumper near the rim in traffic that bounced around but didn’t fall.

Ohio State was playing a second straight game without Kyle Young, who suffered a concussion in Friday’s win against Purdue.