Buckeyes Pull Away Late, Down Illini

By Colin Barringer, February 5th, 2018

On Sunday afternoon, the No. 17 Ohio State Buckeyes were able to outlast a significant test from Illinois and reach the coveted 20th win of the season.

The Buckeyes (20-5, 11-1 Big Ten) rode behind forward Keita Bates-Diop’s career-high 35 points to a 75-67 victory over the Fighting Illini (12-12, 2-9) at Value City Arena. It was a much-needed effort after news broke before the game that guard Kam Williams would be suspended indefinitely due to a violation of team rules.

As for Williams’ availability going forward, head coach Chris Holtmann had a very deliberate answer to his status.

“We expect him back at some point, but it is really going to be a day-to-day decision,” he said. “At this point, he needs to do some things and we need to have more conversations. Until I feel comfortable with that, I do not expect him to play.”

Holtmann clarified that he feels Williams will possibly travel to West Lafayette on Wednesday, but his status to play remains uncertain.

The game proved to be different without Williams as Illinois was able to play with pressure and aggression without the presence of an elite deep threat on the floor. This defensive pressure caused some problems for the Buckeyes, and it resulted in 15 turnovers and early frustration on the offensive end.

“We have not gone against pressure like that continuously for a whole game all season,” Bates-Diop said.

It was evident as Illinois would constantly play full-court man defense to bother guard C.J. Jackson’s rhythm to bring the ball up the court. It was apparent that trying to prepare for it was a tall task for the team.

Bates-Diop said, “We tried it with our scout team, but they are a lot smaller and not as quick as Illinois.”

Bates-Diop credits many of the early traveling violations to the adjustment period, but the Buckeyes eventually settled down and sparked a 19-0 run to end the first half. The run spanned across the final 10:11 of the half, and it gave the Buckeyes a four-point lead at the intermission.

Naturally, it would be easy to expect Illinois head coach Brad Underwood being furious with that final stretch from his team, but his comments told a different story.

“We were doing back-flips in the locker room,” he said.

Underwood stressed that the focus was to move onto the second half, because they were only down four while playing so poorly. He saw it as a blessing to still be in the game with the way they played to close the half.

The second half was very evenly-split as both teams traded the lead numerous times. The Fighting Illini eventually held a 3-point lead around the 5-minute mark and possessed all of the momentum. The Buckeyes finally found some passing rhythm around the arc to find Bates-Diop wide open to nail a three and tie the game at 63. That momentum simultaneously swung in the Buckeyes favor.

Holtmann took great joy out of that crucial possession.

“I loved the ball movement (on that play),” Holtmann said. “In this game, you can take advantage of them overplaying (the passing lanes), but that was a possession where I think they went for a couple picks and we made the right plays and passed to an open man.”

From that point on, the Buckeyes finished with a 12-4 advantage to earn their 11th Big Ten victory of the season.

On the Illinois side of this game, Underwood did not hesitate in showing his high thoughts of Bates-Diop saying, “Keita showed why he’s the MVP of our league.”

Underwood was adamant that the Fighting Illini continue to attack the basket because that tactic was working for them. The issue was when they started to become one-dimensional after a couple made three-point shots.

“We made a few threes, and then we fell in love with the three,” he assessed.

That proved to be lethal for the Illini’s chances as they shot 9 of 28 from long range. A majority of the misses occurred during their scoreless drought, and it allowed the Buckeyes to get right back into the game.

Next on the schedule for the Buckeyes is that battle with the first-place Purdue Boilermakers, which should be appointment viewing for all fans within the conference. That all-important contest tips off on Wednesday night (8:30 p.m. Eastern, Big Ten Network).