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Playing its fourth game in four days, OSU ran out of gas against Illinois.



Published: Mon, March 17, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



CHICAGO (AP) -- No matter what the standings said, Illinois knew it was the best team in the Big Ten.

Now it has a nice, shiny trophy to prove it.

Illinois avenged its second-place finish in the regular season Sunday, bulldozing weary Ohio State 72-59 to win its first Big Ten tournament title.

Wisconsin can brag all it likes about being regular season champs, but the Illini are the ones going to the NCAA tournament on a roll.

"It means a lot to win the championship. That's a championship we wanted," Illinois coach Bill Self said. "Wisconsin won something we thought we should have had, and we couldn't get that back.

"This was the only way we could make amends."

Up next

It wasn't enough to impress the NCAA selection committee, though. Despite winning eight of its last nine games and its conference tournament, Illinois (24-6) got just a fourth seed in the West Region, arguably the NCAA's toughest.

Ohio State accepted a bid to the NIT Sunday night. The Buckeyes travel to Georgia Tech on Wednesday.

Illinois will play 13th-seeded Western Kentucky on Thursday in Indianapolis.

"We were hoping for as much as we can get, but we came back with the four," Luther Head said. "We've got to learn to live with it and play."

And as the Illini showed this week, they play pretty well when irked.

Illinois lost 60-59 at Wisconsin on a free throw with four-tenths of a second left. The game was March 5, but the Illini used it as motivation this week.

"It was a great motivating factor," said Brian Cook, the Big Ten player of the year. "Guys were hurting for a couple of days. We took that feeling and used that as motivation today."

Leaders

Even with Cook and Dee Brown having off days, Illinois had little trouble with Ohio State as the rest of the Illini picked up the slack. Roger Powell scored 16 points, and Sean Harrington had 12, all from 3-point range.

James Augustine, who had struggled the past few games, had 12 points and 10 rebounds.

Cook still finished with 15 points, but he was just 4-of-16. Brown had four points, and four turnovers to go with his five assists.

"It's just indicative of how good this team is," Ohio State coach Jim O'Brien said. "They can compensate some lackluster performances by their starts. There are a lot of answers on that team."

Tired

Ohio State was playing its fourth game in four days and had won its first three games by a combined 11 points, and the heavy schedule showed.

The Buckeyes had trouble finishing their shots, shooting 26 percent in the first half and 36 percent overall. They were no match inside for Illinois, which outscored them 34-18 in the paint and had a 16-4 edge on second-chance points.

If not for yet another big effort by Brent Darby, who finished with 27 points and six assists, the game would have been a total rout.

"It was a tough loss," Darby said. "We worked really hard all week, and it hurt to lose in the championship game."

Still, after falling behind by 22 early in the second half, the Buckeyes gave Illinois one last fight. Trailing by 16, Darby made three straight 3-pointers to pull Ohio State to 60-51 with 7:02 to play.

But after a timeout to regroup, Augustine made two free throws and Harrington drilled a 3-pointer to put Ohio State away for good.

Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.




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