COLUMBUS — Looking to break a three-game losing streak and send seniors C.J. Walker and Kyle Young out with a win on the final day of regular season play, No. 7 Ohio State was unable to put away No. 4 Illinois, falling by a final score of 73-68.
E.J. Liddell scored 14 of his team-high 19 points in the second half, and both Justice Sueing and Duane Washington Jr. added 15 points in the loss for the Buckeyes.
Ayo Dosunmu and Andre Curbelo led the way for Illinois, each scoring 19 points. Illini center Kofi Cockburn was largely held in check, scoring just 12 points in 25 minutes of action.
Illinois was out and running early, building a 6-0 lead over the first two minutes of play. After missing on their first four attempts of the game, however, Ohio State responded with makes on four consecutive possessions en route to a 15-12 advantage heading into the first media timeout.
But like it has often over the course of the losing streak, Ohio State’s offense once again began to falter as an 0-7 stretch on offense allowed Illinois to jump out to a six-point lead at 23-17 with nine minutes remaining in the first half.
Ohio State momentarily cut the Illini lead to three on a three-pointer by Washington Jr., but a pair of field goals by Dosunmu and a three-point play by Jacob Grandison quickly increased the advantage back to eight points with 7:07 remaining in the opening period.
With the Buckeyes’ shooting woes continuing deep into the first half, Illinois built its lead to double figures at 36-26 before Liddell was finally able to break through, hitting a three to cut into the deficit. Justin Ahrens followed with a three of his own on the next possession, and the Buckeyes were back within four with 3:40 remaining in the half.
Illinois threatened to take full command of the game heading into the locker room with a three-point play by Dosunmu and a layup from Curbelo that upped the Illini advantage to 41-32 with just over a minute remaining. A critical close for Ohio State kept the Buckeyes within striking distance, though, as Ahrens’ second three of the half and an offensive rebound and putback by Liddell closed the gap to 41-37 as the two teams went to the locker room.
Washington Jr. led the Buckeyes with 11 points in the first half, and Justice Sueing added nine points and seven rebounds. Three Illini — Cockburn, Dosunmu, and Curbelo — eclipsed double figures in scoring over the opening 20 minutes to pace the visitors.
Illinois was able to build the lead despite an ice-cold showing from three, shooting just 1-6 from deep. But the ease with which they were able to get into the paint rendered its paltry shooting irrelevant as the Illini shot 62% from the field overall.
The second half saw a role reversal of sort as it was Ohio State getting out to a fast start. Field goals from Washington Jr., Young, and Walker made up a 6-0 run for the Buckeyes, who recaptured the lead at 43-41 just over two minutes into play.
Illinois immediately responded with a 7-0 run to take a five-point lead, and the next 10 minutes were played within a three-point margin as the two teams continued to trade punches.
Ohio State flirted with taking the lead on several occasions, tying the game four separate times before finally recapturing the lead on a Liddell jumper with 7:20 left to play.
Liddell continued his strong play down the stretch, scoring 10 of the Buckeyes’ 12 points over the span of several minutes to build a 68-64 lead with 3:48 remaining.
With the game hanging in the balance, Ohio State simply couldn’t close the deal, however. Awful shot selection by the Buckeyes gave way to a 9-0 closing flurry by the Illini, dealing Ohio State another devastating blow as they limp into postseason play.
Ohio State’s loss drops them to 19-8 overall and secures the fifth seed in the Big Ten tournament, which begins on Wednesday. The Buckeyes will open on Thursday at 2 p.m. against the winner of Northwestern and Minnesota.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.