COLUMBUS, Ohio - The Buckeyes found their shooting stroke on Tuesday evening against the hapless Fighting Illini in hitting 16 of their first 19 shots and connecting on 71-percent of their first half attempts from the field as Ohio State (23-5, 11-4) crushed Illinois (16-12, 5-10) 83-67 to stay in the Big Ten race for the regular season championship.
DeShaun Thomas stayed hot with 19 points on 6-8 shooting from the field and William Buford bounced back with 17 points on 7-9 shooting after a dismal stretch of games that caused many sleepless night for Ohio State fans and for Thad Matta. The Ohio State starters shot 73-percent for the night (24-33) and the Ohio State bench shot 50-percent (8-16) for their best output of the Big Ten season.
"It was obviously good to see the ball go in early," Matta said. "I thought we got out and got some good shots and got the ball moving."
Jared Sullinger was held to nine points and six rebounds in 27 minutes of action before fouling out of the game. Aaron Craft had 11 points and five assists of his own. The Illini were led by Meyers Leonard and his 21 points (14 in the first half) and 12 points by D.J. Richardson.
Brandon Paul was largely ineffective in the game with nine points (2-9 from the field) and only two in the second half. Paul torched the Buckeyes for 43 in Champaign (Ill.) in Ohio State's 79-74 loss back in January but Matta's team wasn't going to let the same guy beat them this time around.
"They locked into (Paul) right away," Illinois head coach Bruce Weber said. "(Aaron) Craft guarded him."
Paul was almost completely shut out in Illinois' last game against Nebraska where he was held to two points on 1-7 shooting and during this stretch has gone 3-16 which accounts for his two worst games of the Big Ten season and only two games of non-double figure scoring since the UNLV game in December.
Ohio State opened the game on a 19-4 run and ran the lead out to 20 points at the 10:50 mark of the first half. The game was never really in question as the Bucks took a lead of as many as 26 points with 5:28 to go in the game before Matta called off the dogs and subbed his entire team out and gave some valuable minutes to his bench players.
"We had a whole different pace to our offense," Buford said. "We were pushing the ball more and getting easy buckets to open us up from the outside. When you start performing at the beginning it feels good and you can't beat yourself up when you miss shots."
"We were definitely more ready to shoot tonight since (the) last game," Thomas said. "Practice makes perfect, so you make yourselves better as you practice."
Tuesday's game also gave the Buckeyes chances to highlight some different personnel packages including the ability to play Craft and Shannon Scott at the same time on the floor. Scott was held scoreless (0-5) shooting but he did dish out four assists and allowed the Buckeyes to have more flexibility at other positions in the sub rotation.
"I felt like it was a lot easier playing with Aaron," Scott said. "I could get off the ball and give it to him, and go down the court and make plays like that."
The Buckeyes have three games left with a pair on the road against Northwestern and Michigan State after the home finale against Wisconsin on Sunday afternoon. The Buckeyes know that they need to come in with some momentum and the team seems to respond up and down with the play of Buford.
"The main thing that I did wrong (against Michigan) was missing and rushing my shots," Buford said. "I think I did better from the last game. We came in (Tuesday) with great shots and got open."
There is no margin of error for Ohio State if it wants to defend its Big Ten regular season title with four league losses and the Michigan Wolverines holding serve with four as well and a game with everything on the line against the Spartans to end the season.
But none of that will matter if the Buckeyes can't get through the next two games and in order to do that the team will need to shoot closer to the 65-perecent connection rate of Monday rather than the 39-percent in the loss at Michigan or the 26-percent in the loss at home against Michigan State.
"We didn't do anything magical," Matta said of his team's shooting on Tuesday night. "They just went down for us."