COLUMBUS, Ohio — It would be a simple explanation to say that Illinois got sucked into the incredible pull of football hysteria that has gripped the Ohio State campus like a gravitational phenomenon.
At the first media timeout Saturday, Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer and his team basked in a cascade of adulation, well-earned after upending Alabama Tuesday in the Sugar Bowl.
It was a rather lengthy tribute and technically, yes, it disrupted the game.
But anyone who was there, most of all Illini basketball coach John Groce, will tell you Illinois’ second-half collapse against the Buckeyes had nothing to do with the football tribute.
Defensive breakdowns, turnovers and a sense that Illinois failed to mount even the slightest response to a 15-0 run paved the way to No. 20 Ohio State’s 77-61 victory at Value City Arena.
“This one is pretty simple,” Groce said. “Twenty turnovers and we gave up 60 percent from the field in both halves. We weren’t able to defend them from start to finish.
“I thought in the second half it was the worst basketball we’ve played all season. I’m disappointed in that during their run they played with more energy than we did. We got our butts kicked.”
Illinois (10-5, 0-2) played well early, moving the ball and hitting jump shots over the Ohio State zone. Illinois led by as many as eight points and took a 37-36 lead to the locker room thanks largely to 8-of-15 shooting from 3-point range.
But Ohio State switched to a man-to-man defense in the second half and made its move about five minutes into the period.
Illinois led 44-41 at the time and five minutes later the game had taken a complete reversal. The Buckeyes, led by freshman D’Angelo Russell (22 points), ripped off 15 unanswered points while Illinois committed six turnovers, missed three shots and used two timeouts trying unsuccessfully to stop the Buckeyes.
By then Ohio State (12-3, 1-1) owned a 56-44 lead. The Illini scoring drought ended when Nnanna Egwu hit two free throws with 11:06 to go, but Ohio State rattled off six more points to make its game-changing run 22-2.
“When we got popped in the mouth we didn’t respond well,” Groce said.
Rayvonte Rice led Illinois with 20 points including 14 in the first half. But he took just two shots in the second half and once again Illinois was unable to demonstrate a reliable scoring counterpunch.
Kendrick Nunn was the only other Illini in double figures with 10 points and he said Groce let the team know they had failed to fight Ohio State on even terms.
“They played much harder than us and got the loose balls, the 50-50 balls,” Nunn said. “That’s an important part of the game. You have to dig when you’re in a stretch like that. You have to get stops.”
In a matter of five days, two second-half breakdowns have backed Illinois into an early Big Ten Conference corner.
Saturday’s loss follows a defeat at Michigan in which Illinois blew a 13-point lead. And if two straight conference losses aren’t concerning enough, up next is a home game against Big Ten newcomer Maryland.
While No. 4 Wisconsin is conceded to be the best team in the Big Ten, Maryland has emerged as a strong and surprising candidate to be the league’s second-best. A double-overtime win at Michigan State was followed Saturday by a victory over Minnesota, pushing Maryland’s record to 14-1.
As for the impact of the Ohio State football celebration, Rice dismissed that completely, pointing out that Illinois played well before and after the ceremony.
“That had nothin’ to do with nothin’,” Rice said. “That didn’t bother us at all. Coach told us that was coming. They won that football game and did a great job. We actually watched that game. That wasn’t the deal.”