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February 15, 2014

Buckeyes roar past Illinois

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- On Friday, Sam Thompson said Ohio State hadn't earned a sure spot in the NCAA tournament.

"We don't feel that we've done enough to really put ourselves in a position where we can say if the season ended today, we're hands down in the tournament," Thompson. "We want to get to the tournament, we don't want to play on Thursday in the Big Ten tournament and we obviously want to win the Big Ten tournament. It's about sending a message every time we step out on the floor."

A comprehensive win against Illinois might be a first step toward that mission.

After trailing by three at halftime, the Buckeyes used a 20-6 run to kindle a second-half surge to beat the Fighting Illini, 48-39, Saturday night at Assembly Hall in Champaign, Ill.

On an pedestrian -- and maybe even woeful -- night for offensive-minded basketball, Ohio State made 40 percent of its shots but Illinois -- which watched shot after shot clank and clunk off the iron -- was far more inefficient, shooting just 28 percent from the floor.

Senior guard Aaron Craft led Ohio State with 14 points but he had help. Junior forward and leading scorer LaQuinton Ross added nine points and freshman forward Marc Loving, who had yet to score a point in February, came off the bench for eight.

It's the Buckeyes (20-6, 7-6 Big Ten) first win in Champaign since a 73-68 triumph in 2011. The victory also marked coach Thad Matta's 14th 20-win season in stops with the Buckeyes, Xavier and Butler.

After trading baskets early, Illinois used a trio of shots behind the arc to jump Ohio State early. Junior guard Tracy Abrams buried a 3-pointer to put the Fighting Illini up, 15-9 with under 13 minutes to play in the first half but the Buckeyes would counter.

After a three-minute scoring drought for both squads, Ross rolled in a layup and sophomore guard Amedeo Della Valle hit a 3-pointer to cut into the deficit and make it 17-14. After whittling Illinois' lead to one point late in the half, Ohio State headed into intermission down, 23-20.

It was the second-to-last time they'd find themselves behind.

To open the game's final 20 minutes, Ross drained a 3-pointer in the corner 22 seconds into the half. It seemed to set the tone of a period that would be simply dominated by the Buckeyes.

Including Ross' trey, Ohio State found themselves amid an offensive outpouring while the Fighting Illini floundered trying to score the ball.

Craft sunk a 3-pointer to push his team ahead, 28-25, with about 15 minutes to play and the Buckeyes never looked back. Ohio State roared ahead with a 20-6 run before seizing a 42-29 lead with just more than five minutes to go.

Illinois charged back with a late 10-6 run but it was far little too late for a reeling squad that previously lost to Nebraska at home and fell to 3-10 in Big Ten play.

Ohio State is set to play Northwestern Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Schottenstein Center.

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