COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — This time, Ohio State hit shots.
As a result, Illinois had no chance.
Deshaun Thomas scored 19 points and No. 8 Ohio State regained its shooting touch by hitting 65 percent from the field, rolling over Illinois 83-67 on Tuesday night to remain in the thick of the Big Ten race.
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“You could just see they were in a zone shooting the ball,” embattled Illini coach Bruce Weber said. “Every shot that went up, it seemed like it was going to be all net.”
William Buford, maligned for his recent poor shooting, had 17 points on 7 of 9 from the field, and Aaron Craft added 11 points to go with five assists. Jared Sullinger, third in the conference at 17.5 points a game, managed just nine before fouling out — but the Buckeyes didn’t really need him.
“It was obviously good to see the ball go in early,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said of the Buckeyes hitting 11 of their first 12 shots and 16 of the first 19. “We had good shots, we got the ball moving and we were able to get out and get some easy buckets because of our defense. That was delightful to see, trust me.”
Ohio State was coming off a 58-48 loss at Value City Arena to Michigan State on Feb. 11 that ended a 39-game home winning streak. The Buckeyes made only 14 of 53 shots against the Spartans, an arena-record low of 26.4 percent for the home team. They connected on 2 of 15 3-pointers.
In their most recent game, a 56-51 loss to No. 17 Michigan on Saturday, they shot 38.8 percent.
“We were so ready. That’s what practice does. You play as you practice,” Thomas said of the Buckeyes’ fast start, which put them up by double figures, a cushion they kept for the game’s last 35 minutes. “We worked on our footwork in practice and we were knocking shots down. And that led into the game.”
The Buckeyes (23-5, 11-4) stayed on the heels of Big Ten leader Michigan State with three games remaining. The Spartans are 11-3 in league play heading into a game at Minnesota on Wednesday night. Ohio State will visit Michigan State in the regular-season finale on March 4.
In losing two of their last three, many of the Buckeyes have caught a lot of flak, but none more than Buford, who hit 2 of 12 from the field in the loss to Michigan State and 3 of 12 at Michigan.
But he had a hot hand all night against Illinois.
“I didn’t dwell on it from the last game,” Buford said. “I just came in and watched some film. And just tried to not make the same mistakes I made the last time. Today we were getting easy shots and we were able to knock them down. My bigs were screening great for me and we had a great pace.”
Meyers Leonard had 21 for Illinois (16-12, 5-10), which has lost six in a row and nine of 10.
The game was a dramatic turnaround for Brandon Paul, who had 43 points in Illinois’ 79-74 stunner over then-No. 5 Ohio State on Jan. 10. Paul almost destroyed the Buckeyes by himself, making 11 of 15 shots from the field — including 8 of 10 3-pointers — and 13 of 15 free throws.
But on this night, he managed just nine points on 2 of 9 shooting.
The Illini never got closer than 16 points over the last 25 minutes. The loss will add to speculation that ninth-year coach Bruce Weber’s job is in jeopardy.
It had gotten so bad that Weber last week bemoaned that he had become too worried about winning and not about “developing a culture and a toughness.”
After yet another loss, he said it the Illini’s defense played a role in how well Ohio State shot the ball.
“The thing that is so frustrating for me is our defense,” he said. “It’s something that carried us early and gave us a chance to win games. And now … it’s not there. That was my complete message to the kids: There’s still games to win, a lot of things can happen. But unless the defense has pride and the pride in the defense changes, nothing’s going to change.”
Matta said he had drilled his players on shooting great shots, not just good ones.
But the bottom line, he said, was that on this night more of them fell than had been lately.
“There was probably five or six times where we said, `Boy, we’ve had that (shot) before. And it didn’t go down,'” he said. “We didn’t do anything magical or anything like that. They went down for us.”