No. 21 Ohio State ready for huge test at No. 14 Illinois
What wasn’t on the stat sheet for No. 21 Ohio State in its 81-71 win over Northwestern on Wednesday leaves coach Chris Holtmann optimistic about the Buckeyes’ chances when they play at No. 14 Illinois on Saturday at Champaign, Ill.
Missing from the lineup were starting point guard CJ Walker and backup Jimmy Sotos because of injuries. Under those circumstances, leading scorer E.J. Liddell, who entered the game at 14.0 points per game, would have been expected to step up for the Buckeyes (10-3, 4-3 Big Ten).
But he had a zero in the field-goals made column on six shots and finished with six points by going 6-for-8 at the free-throw line.
Instead, junior forward Justice Sueing made his first career start at point guard and had 13 points and seven rebounds, while junior guard Duane Washington Jr. led four Buckeyes in double figures with a career-high 23 points.
“This is the most proud I’ve been of our team the entire year,” Holtmann said.
Illinois (9-4, 5-2 Big Ten) was supposed to play at Nebraska on Wednesday, but the game was postponed because the Cornhuskers paused full-team activities due to positive COVID-19 results in the program.
The unexpected open date prevented the Illini from getting on the court to erase memories of a 66-63 loss to Maryland on Sunday. Illinois led 59-56 with 7:30 left, but the Illini scored four points the rest of the game.
It left Illinois coach Brad Underwood baffled by the inconsistencies of his team. The Illini outscored Northwestern 53-13 in the second half of their previous game to overcome a 15-point deficit for an 81-56 win.
“There’s a million reasons,” Underwood said. “It’s something different every game. How about turnovers in the first half when you got a chance to really kind of pull away? We missed things, missed opportunities. It’s been everything.”
The competition has something to do with that, Illini guard Ayo Dosunmu said.
“The Big Ten is loaded,” he said. “Every day’s a game. Every game’s a dogfight. No days off. No games off. You have to come in and compete and play as hard as you can each and every game, each and every day.
“I love my team. I love where we’re at. I definitely think we can play better. We will play better, but it’s just a bump in the road in the journey. So, 5-2 in the Big Ten, it’s pretty solid. We have to focus up and finish the month strong, and we’ll be right there.”
The Buckeyes hope Liddell, a two-time Illinois Mr. Basketball, will be rejuvenated in a return to his home state.
“When we’re at our best I feel like everybody is out there playing 100 percent, playing confidently,” Ohio State guard Justin Ahrens said. “We can keep building off these wins and ultimately keep it rolling.”
The Buckeyes haven’t been to the State Farm Center in more than four years. The last time Ohio State played at Illinois was Jan. 1, 2017, a span of 1,477 days.
–Field Level Media