EJ Liddell scored a career-high 26 points on 10-of-16 shooting and grabbed seven rebounds in 27 minutes of play to lead #21 Ohio State (11-3, 5-3) over the #14 Illinois Fighting Illini (9-5, 5-3). It was the second time in as many road games that the Buckeyes have beaten a ranked opponent despite missing their top two point guards in CJ Walker and Jimmy Sotos.
The Buckeyes took a 43-28 lead to the half and held on for dear life at the end as Illinois cut the lead down to two points in the game’s final minute. In addition to Liddell’s 26 points, teammates Duane Washington, Justin Ahrens, and Seth Towns all scored 11 points against Illinois. Towns scored his points in just 15 minutes of action. Ahrens hit 3-of-5 three-point attempts.
Sophomore forward EJ Liddell was back in his home state and scored a career-high 26 points on the day and was an impossible matchup for Illinois. Matched up with much bigger players, the Illini defenders chose to allow Liddell to shoot open jumpers throughout the game, which he made. In addition to being 10-of-16 from the field, he was also 4-of-7 from three-point range. He had a number of big baskets despite being defended throughout the game by Illinois’ 7-foot center Kofi Cockburn.
The Buckeyes were outstanding out of the gate in this one, quickly building a double-figure lead and then holding it throughout the first 20 minutes of the game. Ohio State hit seven of their 11 three-point attempts in the first half and shot 17-of-32 overall (.531), while holding the Illini to 11-of-27 shooting and 3-of-10 from three-point territory. The Buckeyes also outrebounded the bigger Illinois squad 20-11 in the first half.
After outrebounding Illinois 20-11 in the first half, the Buckeyes went much of the second half with just three rebounds. They eventually finished with eight rebounds in the second half while Illinois grabbed 18 total and seven on the offensive end. Despite the offensive rebounds for Illinois, they scored just five second-chance points. The Buckeyes, meanwhile, converted their only offensive rebound in the second half into two points.
The Buckeyes were relatively terrific from three-point range on the day, hitting 11-of-21 from beyond the arc. Along with EJ Liddell (4-7) and Justin Ahrens (3-5), Ohio State also had threes from Seth Towns (2-3), Duane Washington (1-4), and Meechie Johnson (1-1). Johnson is now 3-for-3 on the season. Illinois, on the other hand, went 9-of-26 (.346) from three-point territory.
Illinois stars Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn were both right near the average points scored per game in this one. Dosunmu scored 22 which is right at his average, while Cockburn was just two points below his 17 point-per-game average. The difference, however, is that none of those 37 collective points were easy. Dosunmu was 6-of-16 from the field. Cockburn was an impressive 7-of-7 from the field, but only getting off seven shots (and five free throw attempts) was nice work by an undersized OSU front. Perhaps the most impressive part about the Buckeyes’ defense on these two is that Dosunmu and Cockburn combined for just eight points in the first half.
The Box Score
— Players win games. Proud of the effort. They made the plays throughout the game and down the stretch.
— Tremendous respect for Illinois and knew they would be geared up for this game coming off of a loss.
— Excited about this win and how many guys stepped up.
— Zed Key continues to get better. He’s a big body. You can say he’s undersized but he has great length, terrific hands, and good awareness and touch in the paint. “Gave us a physical presence. He’s naturally a physical kid. That’s why we recruited him.”
— Proud in different ways of this team against Illinois and Northwestern. Proud of the way the team responded to Illinois’ physicality in the second half. Illinois is a tremendous team when they’ve been down. They overwhelm their opponents and he’s proud of his guys to not let that happen.
— The players have really embraced what each guy brings to the team in a game. They have had to mix and match the lineup a lot and players understand their roles but can also expand them when the need arises. There is depth on this team and that’s because guys embrace their individual roles.
— “We just want EJ to stay aggressive.” He’s a very good mid-range shooter and is still adjusting to the three-point line in college. He has spent a lot of time on it in the offseason. He has the green light any time he is open.
— CJ Walker can put these wins on his resume when he gets into coaching because he’s 2-0 as an assistant coach. He has coached the guys up. He’s been extremely vocal. “I’ll gladly give him these two wins so he can put them on his resume.” They missed his ball handling with the press. Illinois wore them down a bit. Justice Sueing turned it over five times but he did a really nice job doing what he was being asked to do.
— Justin Ahrens is such a good shooter that when he has space you don’t want him to turn it down. He doesn’t want anybody on the team ever flinching and Ahrens didn’t flinch on his late three. It was the best look they were going to get so even though it was a quick shot, it was a good shot.
— The team is still a work in progress. The injuries have made them shuffle things. He doesn’t want to diminish the last three wins, but it’s a continual thing. As guys get back, you have to figure out how to get them back into the mix while also having everyone committed to constantly improving the work in progress. “We have to be firmly committed to that because as soon as you take your sight off of that, you’re going to get beat.” That’s the challenge. If the group has the right mindset, then they’ll have a chance to be at their best like they did late in the season last year. “This is a fun group to coach.”
— They were trying to make Kofi Cockburn score the ball in crowds as much as possible. That worked for much of the game. They gave up some easy baskets but the guys were generally pretty quick on the catch.
— Overall, the team played with the aggressiveness and assertiveness that you need as the opponent is coming back. They didn’t always avoid flinching but they did it enough.
— They knew Illinois was going to test them mentally and physically. To have gone through this, that is a good thing for this group.
— This was his home state but he was more motivated by his teammates. “I felt like I had to do more to win today.” He did everything he could today for his teammates. Today he needed to score and he did.
— He has the same approach every game. Do what the team needs him to do. Sometimes it’s rebounding but today it was scoring.
— Kofi Cockburn “is a massive dude.” He gets really good position. They were focused on stopping him defensively. Also as long as Liddell kept shooting and hitting shots, Cockburn was going to have to come out and guard him and open the paint.
— When two men are down right now everybody has to step up and have each other’s back.
— Everybody on the team has accepted their role. “We still have a long way to go. We’ve got a long season.” Just have to stay together.
— His early misses didn’t bother him. “The game goes on.” Just make the next one.
— You have to stay ready and be prepared for the next play despite having a turnover or something prior. That’s basketball.
— The plan to defend Kofi Cockburn was big. “We knew he would be a force.” They keyed on him in this game. Held him to seven shot attempts.
— “I’m really just taking it game by game and obviously some games are better than others.” He is trying to stay as locked in as possible and then trying to stay as healthy as possible.
— CJ Walker is doing a really good job of helping during the games. He’s another coach out there helping and contributing to the team. “We can’t wait to get him back.”
— What does it take to close out a game on the road? Games are going to come down to the wire. That’s going to continue to happen. The difference will be having the awareness to finish games and convert in the clutch. Illinois fought back hard but OSU finished well in the end.
— Everybody was locked in during the timeouts. “The moment can’t be too big for you.” The focus was on executing.
— He’s not sure he can give a percentage for where he is health-wise and basketball-wise. It’s a day-by-day thing. He knows he can advance a lot more than where he currently is. He is working on improving his game and his health every day. Dotting i’s and crossing t’s.
— The last week has told the team a lot about who they are this year.
— There has been a ton of progress made in this team over the last couple of weeks. Meechie Johnson is helping. Towns is improving. The chemistry is getting better all the time. Players are coming alive because of it.
[Header photo courtesy of the Ohio State Dept. of Athletics.]