COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio State took care of business Sunday, beating Illinois 68-55 in front of a sold-out crowd on Senior Day.
The Buckeyes needed a victory over the Fighting Illini, a team that demolished them by 19 points in Champiagn earlier this season, to have any hopes of sharing the Big Ten title.
Five straight wins to close out the regular season put No. 14 Ohio State in position for its fourth straight conference regular-season championship. The Buckeyes needed Michigan to beat Indiana later Sunday to finish in a tie for first.
"I am so proud of this basketball team," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. "A lot of people had them dead to rights a month ago and they haven't lost since.
"It has been a heck of a stretch coming from where we started after losing two games in a row, which he hadn't done in something like four years, to now."
The Buckeyes (23-7, 13-5) were led junior Deshaun Thomas
, who scored a team-high 19 points in what could be his final home game at Ohio State.
Junior point guard Aaron Craft added 14 points, six assists, four rebounds and three steals in a game the Buckeyes controlled at the defensive end.
Ohio State used a 12-2 run to close out the first half with a 33-24 lead and they never looked back.
"I thought the biggest segment of the game was the 12-2 Ohio State run in the first half," Illinois coach John Groce said.
"I thought we demonstrated a lot of toughness. We had a good energy about us and we worked together. I liked our body language and our disposition. At the same time, obviously we're disappointed that we came up short."
Illinois (21-11, 8-10) shot just 35 percent from the floor, including 9 of 30 in the first half, and finished 7 of 25 from behind the arc.
Senior Brandon Paul led the Illini with a game-high 21 points. D.J. Richardson added 10 on 4-of-11 shooting from the field. Sophomore point guard Tracy Abrams scored nine points but was harassed into 3-of-10 shooting from the floor by Craft, the league's reigning defensive player of the year.
The game was back and forth for the first 10 minutes, with both teams struggling to find an offensive rhythm. Senior Tyler Griffey gave Illinois a 15-11 lead with a wide-open 3-pointer with 10:23 left in the first half, but Ohio State quickly retook the lead on a 3-pointer from Lenzelle Smith Jr.
"I'm going to say the obvious: We didn't have it for the first 12 minutes," Matta said. "We had a look in our eyes and I called a timeout and said, 'OK, we've tried it your way. Now let's try it the Ohio State way.'"
The score was tied at 20 when Matta went to a small lineup with less than seven minutes to play in the first half. Starting center Amir Williams and backup Evan Ravenel, the team's lone senior, had been ineffective, prompting Matta to go with Thomas at center and sophomore Sam Thompson at power forward.
Ohio State ripped off a 9-0 run sparked by the defense. Guard Shannon Scott, one of the heroes from Ohio State's upset win over No. 2 Indiana on Tuesday night, made an acrobatic steal that led to a layup for Thomas.
"We put a lot of pressure on the ball very early," said Scott, who finished with two steals and nine rebounds to go with seven points, "and that was the main focus throughout the entire game."
Scott rattled in a 15-foot jumper off the next Illinois turnover to give Ohio State a 30-22 lead with 3:28 to play in the half. Paul stopped the run with two free throws with 3:03 to go, but Illinois failed to score again in the half.
Ohio State closed out the half on a 12-2 run to take a 33-24 lead into the break. Thomas had seven points.
"I was just being patient," Thomas said. "We knew they were going to switch, so I listened to my teammates who were watching for them and it helped when I was being double-teamed.
"It just means being ready and being aware of what is going on."
Thomas, the Big Ten's leading scorer, had 12 of his 19 points in the second half as Ohio State pulled away. He scored six quick points to put OSU up 41-29 with 15:39 to play. The Buckeyes extended their lead back to 12 on a layup from LaQuinton Ross with just over 10 minutes to play.
NOTES: Matta improved his record to 47-12 in March. It is the fourth-best record by percentage among active coaches and tops in the Big Ten. ... Thomas passed Jerry Francis for 19th place on Ohio State's career scoring list. He is within striking distance of the top spot if he returns for his senior season. ... Ohio State clinched the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the Big Ten Tournament and will face Purdue or Nebraska in the quarterfinals.
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