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Defense carries Illinois to 74-55 win over Ohio State

The SportsXchange

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Illinois played like a desperate team. Ohio State performed like a team that hadn't been on the road since November.

Forcing turnover after turnover from the normally sure-handed Buckeyes, the 11th-ranked Fighting Illini led wire-to-wire Saturday, notching a 74-55 Big Ten Conference rout at Assembly Hall.

Coming off a 68-61 upset loss Wednesday night at Purdue, Illinois (14-2, 1-1) dictated with defense and its ability to get to the rim whenever it wanted to against a normally stingy opponent.

Brandon Paul paced the Illini with 19 points, while center Nnanna Egwu chipped in 16 points, far above his per-game average. Tracy Abrams added 13 points, six rebounds and five assists in a solid all-around performance and Joseph Bertrand came off the bench to score 12 points.

"I thought our toughness and togetherness was exceptional," Illinois coach John Groce said. "I knew we were going to learn a lot about our guys after we lost Wednesday night. The way we practiced the last two days was really good.

"Practices were physically demanding, but I thought the guys responded well. I'm thankful for the character of our guys. They let us coach them."

Deshaun Thomas fired in a game-high 24 points for No. 8 Ohio State (11-3, 1-1), but he had little help from his teammates. Aaron Craft added 11, most coming in garbage time.

Illinois set the tone immediately, jumping out to a 9-2 lead that it gradually built up to as high as 16 before settling for a 37-25 advantage at intermission. Its three-guard lineup consistently penetrated the lane, outscoring Ohio State 16-10 in the paint in the half.

More important, the Illini forced 11 turnovers from a foe that came into the day averaging only 10.3. Playing their first game away from Columbus since a loss at Duke on Nov. 28, the Buckeyes were guilty of everything from bad passes to double dribbles to offensive fouls off the ball. Illinois netted 16 points off those errors.

Craft said he didn't think Ohio State was ready to play, and coach Thad Matta didn't disagree.

"The thing that sticks out for me were the turnovers," Matta said. "And the points they got off those turnovers, too. You can't do that on the road against a good team like this."

It got no better for Ohio State in the second half as Illinois opened with a 19-6 run, establishing a 56-31 lead when Abrams bombed home a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 10:41 remaining.

Thomas led a brief burst to respectability for the Buckeyes, pulling them within 60-46 on a turnaround jumper with 6:37 left. But the Illini promptly ripped off seven straight points to end any hopes of a miracle rally.

Despite making just 8-of-27 from the 3-point line, Illinois finished the day at 48 percent from the floor, hitting 64.5 percent of its two-point shots. That included a 7-of-10 day from Egwu, who entered the game averaging only six points per game.

"I have to give credit to the guards for getting me the ball in good position," Egwu said. "Their guards like to go under ball screens, so I knew I would have open jumpers. It was just a matter of making them."

Meanwhile, Ohio State clanged its way to a 20-of-60 showing from the field. Take Thomas' 9-of-21 line out of the equation, and the Buckeyes connected on just 28 percent of their attempts.

"We knew that we had to make things as tough as possible on Thomas," Paul said. "We did a good job closing out on their non-shooters."

The Buckeyes dropped to 0-3 against ranked teams, continuing to fuel concerns that they aren't the same team that went to last year's Final Four. But Matta preferred to give credit to Groce, his former assistant who was the Illini's third choice to replace the fired Bruce Weber last spring.

"I told him, 'You're in a good situation. You've got good players and they've been coached.' They did a good job guarding us. It seemed like they contested every shot," Matta said.

NOTES: It was Illinois' largest margin of victory over a Top 10 team since drilling John Wooden's UCLA 110-83 on Dec. 4, 1964. ... The Illini also blocked a season-high eight shots and won the rebounding battle 40-30, including 24-13 in the second half. ... Ohio State's 25 first-half points represented a season low.
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