Ohio State trailed by three at halftime, and coach Thad Matta told the Buckeyes he thought they would find a way to win.
Turns out, he was right.
Aaron Craft scored 14 points and No. 22 Ohio State held Illinois to 28.3 percent shooting on the way to a scrappy 48-39 win on Saturday night.
Craft picked up two early fouls and spent two long stretches on the bench. But he was still the Buckeyes’ best option on a tough offensive night for each team.
“It was rough — I’m sitting on the bench. It’s tough when you don’t have a say,” Craft said. “My teammates did a great job, controlling the perimeter. Guys just did a great job executing, finding ways to keep it close and that’s what we needed.”
LaQuinton Ross added nine points for Ohio State (20-6, 7-6 Big Ten), which trailed 23-20 at halftime. The Buckeyes made 38 percent of their shots.
Matta remained confident despite the slow start, delivering a positive message at the break.
“We’re down three,” Matta said he told his players. “Trust me, something’s gonna fall for us.”
And it did.
Ross and Craft each hit a 3-pointer as Ohio State started the second half with a 10-2 run.
Tracy Abrams had 13 points for Illinois (14-12, 3-10), which has lost 10 of 11. Nnanna Egwu had a career-high 14 rebounds but fouled out late.
“Obviously our offense was anemic today,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “I thought Ohio State had a lot to do with that. I thought they imposed their will on the defensive end, especially in the second half.”
The Buckeyes finished with 10 steals. Shannon Scott had five and Craft had three.
“I thought the 10 steals in that type of game, that’s a large number,” Groce said.
Illinois scored just nine points over the first 15:35 minutes of the second half.
While each team struggled with its shooting, defense also played a key role.
The Illini paid close attention to Ross, who was averaging a team-high 14.6 points. He had just one field goal in the second half and was 3 for 8 from the field for the game.
Rayvonte Rice, Illinois’ leading scorer with 16.8 a game coming in, had trouble getting open for much of the night. He had seven late points to finish with 11.
“Honestly, we were just playing him straight up,” Matta said. “We didn’t do anything special or strategically, just guard him.”
Illinois’ shooting percentage was a sickly 29 percent in the first half. But the Illini still had the lead at the break, using their defense and a flurry of early 3-pointers to grab the advantage.
But that poor shooting percentage kept getting lower as the game went along.
The Illini hit just one of their first nine shots in the second half, a seven-minute stretch during which the Buckeyes grabbed a 30-25 lead.
Egwu’s jumper with 12:55 to play temporarily ended Illinois’ scoring drought.
But the Buckeyes eventually pulled away. Amedeo Della Valle had a layup and Marc Loving made consecutive jump shots to put the Buckeyes up 38-29.
Loving had eight points. He had gone a stretch of six games without making a field goal.
“We rode those guys,” Matta said of his reserves, who gave Ohio State 17 points. “They were dog tired and I didn’t care. I was leaving them out there.”