COLUMBUS, Ohio — Deshaun Thomas, playing perhaps his final home game for No. 14 Ohio State, scored 19 points Sunday to lead the Buckeyes over Illinois 68-55 and keep alive their Big Ten title hopes.
The victory put Ohio State (23-7, 13-5) in position to grab a share of the conference title if No. 7 Michigan can win at home against No. 2 Indiana later on Sunday. The Buckeyes are assured the No. 2 seed in next week's Big Ten tournament at Chicago's United Center.
Brandon Paul scored 21 points for Illinois (21-11, 8-10), which is guaranteed the No. 8 seed in the Big Ten tournament
Aaron Craft added 14 points and six assists while creating his usual havoc on defense. Lenzelle Smith Jr. had 10 points.
The Buckeyes have won five in a row, including wins over No. 2 Indiana and No. 4 Michigan State. They left the arena in the odd position of having to root for archrival Michigan to get a share of the title. They were seeking at least a piece of their fourth straight Big Ten crown and sixth in eight years.
Thomas, the Big Ten's leading scorer at 19.8 points a game, is expected to give up his senior season to enter the NBA draft.
Up by nine at the half, Ohio State did enough to hold off the Illini.
A technical foul on Smith – he thought he was fouled on a 3-point attempt and barked at an official – helped Illinois pick up three points to cut the lead to 43-35 midway through the second half.
But the next trip down the floor Thomas was fouled on a 3 and hit two foul shots. Craft then tipped a ball that led to an Illini turnover and Amir Williams scored off an inbounds play to increase the lead to 47-35.
Illinois pulled as close as 51-44 on consecutive 3s by Paul and Myke Henry.
But then Craft, who has broken out of a lethargic season with several big offensive games, drove the lane and banked in a layup in traffic. After an Illini miss, Thomas fed Evan Ravenel, the Buckeyes' only senior, for a three-point play.
Craft then rebounded at the other end and tossed in a 3 late in the shot clock and the lead was 15 with less than six minutes left. Illinois didn't threaten again.
The Buckeyes hadn't forgotten what happened the last time these teams met. The Illini drilled Ohio State 74-55 at home on Jan. 5 – Illinois' largest margin of victory over a top-10 opponent in almost 50 years. The Buckeyes came in averaging 10.3 turnovers but had 11 in the first half alone and finished with 16. For days after that, Ohio State's players said they had embarrassed themselves and the university.
The first half was tight until the Buckeyes made a late 12-2 run. The teams were tied at the first three media timeouts, but Ohio State suddenly started attacking at the defensive end. Even though the Illini got decent shots, nothing was falling.
Thomas hit a fadeaway from 12 feet for a 23-22 lead, touching off a 9-0 run. Sam Thompson hit a foul shot and Smith popped in a perimeter jumper.
The Illini missed six shots during the drought, with a turnover thrown in. And what a turnover it was. Shannon Scott anticipated a pass and stepped in front of it, then whipped it around his back as he was falling out of bounds at the right sideline. It went to Craft in the middle of floor and he heaved it blindly over his head to Thomas, who was racing down the floor. Thomas faked a jumper and then rolled in a layup to make it 28-22.
Scott then had a 15-footer touch about every inch of the rim before falling to push the lead to eight points. After Paul hit two foul shots – the first for Illinois almost 17 minutes into the game – Scott followed a near-air ball by Scott and Thompson hit another free throw to put the Buckeyes ahead 33-24 at the break.
Thomas opened the second half with a baseline jumper to give the Buckeyes 14 of the last 16 points and an 11-point advantage.
Scott finished with seven points, nine rebounds and three assists off the bench.
It was definitely the final home game for Ravenel, a transfer who spent two years at Boston College.
The Buckeyes will play on Friday night in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament against the winner of seventh-seeded Purdue and 11th-seeded Nebraska. The Illini will play ninth-seeded Minnesota on Thursday.
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