Ohio State notched one of its best victories of the season Thursday, going on the road and taking down Illinois 86-83 in a wild game that included blown leads by both teams, an ejection and a late effort by the Fighting Illini that provided a thrilling finish at the State Farm Center.
Playing its third game in five nights, Ohio State fell behind early and trailed by as many as 13 in the first half as Illinois established an early edge with the power of the home crown on its back. But after halftime the Buckeyes took control of the game and built out their own double-digit lead before the Fighting Illini battled back and gave themselves a chance to tie or win in the final minute.
The fact that Illinois got back into the game was impressive considering coach Brad Underwood was ejected with more than six minutes left in the second half and star big man Kofi Cockburn fouled out less than two minutes later. When Underwood, who was ejected because of a second technical foul after picking up his first earlier in the half, turned to the stands to fire up the home crowd on his way off the court the score was 70-58. Ohio State converted on both technical foul free throws and the ensuing possession, but what followed that was an 18-4 run by the Fighting Illini that cut the Buckeyes lead to two points with 1:49 left to play.
Underwood's ejection follows that of UConn coach Dan Hurley in being this week, at home, against a quality opponent and sparking some kind of run for his team. The difference being the Huskies stormed back and picked up the win while Ohio State was able to hold off any momentum the Illini got from Underwood's theatrics, and pulled out out the victory. The Fighting Illini did go on an 8-0 run in the final minutes and cut the lead to two points with 1:49 remaining, and Trent Frazier hit a 3-pointer to get within one point with 14 seconds left on the clock but ultimately never re-took the lead after giving it up early in the second half.
Cockburn's foul trouble was a major storyline
The absence of Cockburn was extended beyond the final minutes when he was fouled out and included the many minutes he was in foul trouble. It unquestionably impacted how Illinois played around the rim on both ends of the floor when Cockburn was on the bench, and while a bonus for Ohio State it did leave something to be desired with the potential of more matchups E.J. Liddell. Both players are going to be in the running for both all-conference and All-American honors, so for Cockburn's foul trouble to be lingering storyline does bring some disappointment, but Liddell's performance has its own story that adds intrigue to this result.
Liddell has his 'flu game'
Earlier on Thursday, Ohio State made it official that E.J. Liddell, the team's leader in points (19.5), rebounds (7.6) and blocks (2.5) was "questionable" for the game with the flu but he did eventually get cleared to play. Liddell not only started but led the team in minutes played, rebounds and blocks, adding more highlights to his impressive reel as one of the most impactful players in the country. He finished with 21 points, six rebounds and four blocks in 35 minutes, providing a solid scoring option and key defensive stops in the paint.
Branham's breakout continues
It's possible that Ohio State's ceiling in the NCAA Tournament hinges on whether the recent surge from freshman Malaki Branham is a late season blip or a sign of what's to come in the weeks ahead. Branham was a top-40 prospect coming out of St. Vincent-St. Mary's in Akron, and he's exploded in the last three games with 22 points in a loss to Iowa, 27 points in a win against Indiana and 31 on Thursday in the win against Illinois. Branham had logged just three games with 20-plus points all season prior this run and his emergence has helped create an advantage that could be beneficial in the postseason. He's not only a prolific scorer but also a great engine for the offense on the perimeter that can allow E.J. Liddell to pick his spots with attention diverted elsewhere.