COLUMBUS — On a night when the Ohio State program was celebrating a pair of seniors who were playing their final game in Value City Arena, it was a freshman who stole the show as the 19th-ranked Buckeyes defeated No. 23 Illinois, 71-63, on Thursday.
Freshman forward E.J. Liddell continued his late-season surge of quality play to the tune of 17 points and 11 rebounds, his first career double-double, to lead Ohio State.
Kaleb Wesson led the team in scoring with 19 points, 15 of which came in the second half, and C.J. Walker went 11-13 from the free-throw line to score 15 points.
Fittingly, senior Danny Hummer, making the start for Ohio State in his final game in the Schottenstein Center, opened up the scoring with a drive and a layup on the opening possession to give the Buckeyes an early 2-0 lead.
Duane Washington Jr.’s jumper increased the early lead to 4-0 before Illinois responded with six consecutive points to take its first lead at 6-4.
Fouls then began to pile up for both teams as the play on the floor became increasingly bogged down with every whistle from the officials. Wesson was hit with his second foul with more than 16 minutes remaining in the half, sending him to the bench early and putting Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann and the Buckeyes into an early bind.
With the Buckeye big man off the floor, Illinois was sure to take advantage. Da’monte Williams’ made three-pointer pushed the Illini lead to 14-6, forcing Holtmann to gamble and re-insert Wesson back into the lineup despite the foul trouble.
The lead continued to grow, however, as a pair of free throws and a dunk from Illinois center Kofi Cockburn on consecutive possessions gave the Fighting Illini their largest lead of the half at 20-9 with 11:08 remaining in the first period.
Ohio State would receive a bit of a break, however, as Cockburn picked up his second foul less than a minute later, forcing Illinois head coach Brad Underwood to pull his center from the game.
Without Cockburn on the floor, Ohio State began to chip away at the Illini lead. An 8-2 run, capped off by a Washington Jr. three-pointer pulled the Buckeyes to within four points with 8:21 left in the half. Less than two minutes later, Andre Wesson’s made field goal in the paint leveled the score at 24-24.
But as quick as Ohio State could draw even, Illinois responded with a 9-2 run, led by seven points from guard Ayo Dosunmu, to take a 33-26 lead with just over two minutes to play in the half. The Illinois lead would stay at seven points as the two teams went in the locker room.
Dosunmu led all first-half scorers with 14 points, and the Fighting Illini shot 52 percent as a team while holding Ohio State to just 37 percent shooting. Ohio State went 1-12 from three in the half and committed seven turnovers.
The Illinois lead ballooned to 39-30 to open the second half on a layup from Andres Feliz. In danger of falling in a deep hole, Ohio State immediately responded in a big way, which proved to be the theme for the Buckeyes down the stretch.
C.J. Walker’s free throw completed a three-point play that sparked a 7-0 run, getting the Buckeyes within two points at 39-37 as the two teams went into the under-16 media timeout. Out of the timeout, Kaleb Wesson connected on a three to give Ohio State its first lead since the opening minutes of the first half and get the Value City Arena crowd back into the game.
But the Buckeyes’ lead wouldn’t last long as the two teams continued to trade blows deep into the second half.
Illinois recaptured the lead right back two possessions later on Trent Frazier’s three-pointer, which put the Illini up, 42-40. Another five-point spurt from Dosunmu capped an 8-0 run for the Illini to increase their lead to 47-40 at the 13:19 mark. Dosunmu finished with a game-high 21 points.
Dosunmu’s layup increased the Illinois lead to 51-47 at the 11-minute mark before Ohio State found yet another big run, this time to finally seize all control of the game.
A pair of made free throws from Walker got Ohio State within two points at 51-49, and Kaleb Wesson’s fadeaway jumper on the next possession once again leveled the two teams at 51.
Following a miss by Illinois on the next possession, Muhammad was unable to convert on a fast break opportunity. But Liddell, trailing the play, was there to follow up the miss with a put-back jam to give the Buckeyes the 53-51 lead and ignite the crowd inside Value City Arena as the clock ticked down to the eight-minute mark.
Two free throws from Liddell increased Ohio State’s lead to its largest margin of the night at 56-51 with 6:31 remaining, and three minutes later, a layup from Kaleb Wesson capped a commanding 16-4 Buckeye run to give them a 63-55 cushion as the game approached three minutes remaining.
Feliz’s fastbreak layup following a turnover by Washington Jr. drew the Illini to within five points with less than 1:30 to play, but they would get no closer as stops and free throws secured a win for Ohio State on senior night.
“I just thought we had so many guys step up and make big plays … players win games and that was a heck of a win,” Holtmann said of his team.
Of Liddell, Holtmann said he was “phenomenal,” adding that he could see such a performance coming out of Liddell for a couple of weeks now. He went on to say of Liddell, “I think E.J. has the chance to be a very good player for us.”
Ohio State’s record now stands at 21-9 overall and 11-8 in Big Ten play. The Buckeyes will close out the regular season on Sunday when they travel to East Lansing to take on the Michigan State Spartans. Tipoff for that game has been set for 4:30 p.m.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.