A frigid first-half finish froze Ohio State from the lead and invited 10th-ranked Illionis’ getaway to a comfortable win that bumps the Buckeyes farther from the NCAA Bubble.
Columbus, OH – With light snow and the bite of winter greeting the escapees from Value City Arena after Ohio State closed January with its sixth loss in seven games, only the late philosopher, Yogi Berra, can make any sense of the grease-fueled dumpster fire this OSU season has become.
Yogi once said of the difficult, late-fall sun conditions in left field at Yankee Stadium, “It gets late early out there.”
Likewise, though the conference season is only half finished, it’s getting late early for the Buckeyes (13-8 overall, 3-7 Big Ten) in their quest to avoid missing the NCAA Tournament for a second straight season.
And it’s getting even later even earlier for seventh-year head coach Chris Holtmann’s hopes to hold onto his job, despite the four full seasons remaining on his contract.
Only last week, lame-duck OSU athletic director Gene Smith stiff-armed questions about Holtmann’s longevity and the $15-ish-million buyout Ohio State would owe should it fire him by saying, “We have a lot of this season left to play…I’m looking forward to seeing how this turns out.”
It appears Smith is more deliberate in formulating a final opinion than most fans, given Tuesday’s attendance of 10,285 – about 8,000 shy of capacity in the cavernous mausoleum in which the Buckeyes play.
OSU’s substandard performance has much to do with that abundance of empty seats, of course, or as Yogi once explained, “If people don’t want to come out to the ballpark, nobody’s going to stop them.”
The Buckeyes lost touch after taking a 28-23 lead with 6:47 left in the first half, spiraling from there into the prolonged offensive funk that’s too often doomed them in what will finish a 1-6 January.
If that sort of first-full-month-of-conference-play swoon sounds familiar, it’s because OSU also went 1-6 in January of 2019, 2-5 in January of 2020 and 2-7 in January of 2023.
What can be said to make sense of that, other than another Yogi-ism: “It’s deja-vu all over again.”
With center Felix Okpara on the bench with two personals the final six minutes of the first half, Illinois drove the lane with impunity, fashioning an 18-6 closing spurt that built a 41-34 edge at the break.
Jamison Battle missed three unimpeded perimeter jumpers in that stretch. Zed Key missed a layup and Bruce Thornton yakked a runner in the lane.
In all, OSU made one of nine field goal attempts to end the half. Key and Evan Mahaffey also each missed the front end of one-and-one free throw chances, hastening the demise.
“I thought that was a big stretch there,” Holtmann said. “The missed free throws, the missed one-and-ones are momentum-killers for sure….You’re always playing from behind.
“There’s not a lot of game pressure when it’s always about an eight-to-10 point game – that’s what it was. Those little plays, when your margin of error is really small, those little plays are significant. I did think we got a couple of good looks there.”
Illinois tacked on a quick start to the second half that inflicted a double-figure margin by the 16-minute mark, forcing OSU to play uphill the rest of the way.
lllini seventh-year coach Brad Underwood, who like Holtmann has never gotten his team to the Sweet Sixteen, has crafted a roster with multiple players who can drive and score either creatively off multiple pivots or powerfully in the post.
Fifth-year senior transfer Marcus Domask, a three-time all-league pick in the Missouri Valley League who averaged over 15 points per-game in his four years at Southern Illinois, gives Underwood the kind of consistent, impact transfer OSU sorely needs.
The 6-6 Domask scored 23 against the Buckeyes, as did guard Terrence Shannon, who transferred to Illinois from Texas Tech two years ago.
Battle led OSU with 21 points, but his seven misses came at crucial times when someone needed to staunch the bleeding.
Roddy Gayle Jr. had 20 for the Buckeyes, while leading scorer Bruce Thornton suffered through another low-impact game with just seven points on 3-of-11 shooting, including 1-of-7 from three-point range.
“We need to be nastier,” Holtmann said. “We need to be much nastier. We need to play with more force…I feel like we played better, but it wasn’t long enough to beat a good team.”
Or, as Yogi once said, “We made too many wrong mistakes.”
The 10th-ranked Illini, at 16-5 and 7-3, are indeed a good team. Iowa (12-9 and 4-6), where Ohio State plays on Friday, is not, but everyone looks like John Wooden’s well-paid UCLA teams (Google…UCLA, Sam Gilbert) to an Ohio State bunch that’s lost 14 straight on the road.
Half of the Buckeyes’ remaining 10 games are away from home. Three of the five at Value City are against league foes who’ve already defeated OSU, and another is against second-ranked Purdue.
Given that, what are the Buckeyes’ chances of finishing 7-3 to squeeze a 20-win season and 10-10 Big Ten finish out of this group?
“It ain’t over ‘til it’s over,” Yogi infamously said.
Then again, he also once mused, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”