Bruce Hooley
Bruce Hooley

Bruce Hooley was sports editor of the Troy Daily News from 1983-86 and has covered Ohio State athletics for more than 25 years. Bruce was the OSU beat reporter for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland from 1987-2005.  From 2005-2011 he hosted the afternoon show on  ESPN radio 1460 AM,  in Columbus, before taking on a similar ESPN talk position with WKNR, 850 AM, in Cleveland.  Most recently Hooley has served as the beat reporter for Ohio State football and basketball for Sports Illustrated.com.  The author of "That's Why I'm Here:  The Chris and Stefanie Spielman Story, he returns for his second chapter as Buckeye beat reporter and columnist at large with Press Pros.

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The one missing element on Ohio State’s NCAA Tournament resume is missing no longer after the Buckeyes weathered an early and late Illinois flurry to claim the upset.

Champaign, IL – The ebbs and flows that encapsulated Ohio State’s best road victory of the season created quite a tale for head coach Chris Holtmann to treasure, which is infinitely superior to what could have been a painful fish story to recount.

Down by 13 early, only to lead by 16 in the second half, OSU nearly let the big one get away before hanging on to edge No. 15 Illinois, 86-83, on Thursday and cling to life in the race for the Big Ten championship.

Freshman Malaki Branham’s 31 points, 21 from an ailing E.J. Liddell and 18 off the bench from Kyle Young accounted for 70 of the Buckeyes’ points in posting their first victory over a ranked opponent in a conference road venue this season.

“It was a wild one for sure,: Holtmann said. “I thought our guys were special in a lot of ways. I thought Kyle Young was the difference. Obviously, Malaki was special, but Kyle gave us a tremendous lift. And it was great for E.J. to come back here, not feeling the best, and get a win here.”

Liddell was questionable to play after spending part of Monday night in the hospital getting fluids after OSU’s overtime victory against Indiana, its third game in seven days and second in three days.

OSU relied on Malaki Branham, as it did Monday in an overtime win against Indiana, and he rewarded the Buckeyes with 31 points.

But the former two-time Illinois Mr. Basketball fought through the vestiges of the flu to thoroughly outplay 7-1, 275-pound Kofi Cockburn of the Illini.

Cockburn scored 12 points on 5-of-15 shooting, had only three rebounds and fouled out with 4.33 to play, pushing Young to the ground in a scrum for a loose ball.

Young, who made 6-of-7 field goal attempts, including 2-of-3 three-point attempts, knocked down both resulting free throws for a seemingly-safe, 76-62 lead.

That margin weathered the emotional storm of Illinois coach Brad Underwood’s ejection nearly two minutes earlier, at 6:21, when he gained his second technical for protesting an illegal screen that knocked Branham to the floor.

Branham had just made a layup for a 70-58 lead, and after Underwood’s theatrical, arm-waving, crowd-exhorting exit, made two free throws for Underwood’s technical and a reverse layup on the accompanying inbounds pass.

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Most of the resultant 74-58 lead survived when Cockburn departed, but seeing their mammoth center sit down awakened something in the Illini that their coach’s exit did not.

Scoring on each of its next 10 possessions, Illinois steadily cut into the OSU advantage until it shrank to 80-78 with 1:30 left.

Cedric Russell hit a huge three-pointer in the second half to keep OSU out of danger.

Liddell hit a slick turnaround, fadeaway jumper to the left of the basket with 1:06 left, but the Illini scored again to get back within two before Liddell drew a foul with 31 seconds to play.

Serenaded all night by hostile chants from the home crowd, Liddell strafed both free throws for an 84-80 lead that Trent Frazier cut to one point with a three-pointer at 14.6.

Young made only one of two free throws with nine seconds left, making it, 85-83, allowing Illinois an opportunity to tie  or go ahead with a triple.

Frazier instead drove hard to the basket and, with Liddell rising to block his shot, fired a pass to the left wing that went out of bounds to the Buckeyes.

Cedric Russell made the second of two free throws with two seconds left, and Frazier’s half-court three-pointer did not draw iron at the buzzer.

“I like shooting free throws in those moments,” Liddell said of the late pair that helped blunt the comeback. “I feel like I’ve made a lot of free throws in those moments. It was a hostile crowd. It was nice. I liked playing in it.”

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Illinois’ screaming faithful certainly did not unnerve Branham, who’s blossomed into the Buckeyes’ primary playmaker and go-to offensive threat under pressure.

“He’s a special player,: Holtmann said of Branham, who shot 10-of-14 from the field and 10-of-11 from the free throw line. “So is E.J. Coming back to his home state, there’s a lot of pressure on him. I thought he was really focused. He played through the flu, but we really rode Malaki the last 20 minutes and he was special.”

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No. 22 OSU (18-7, 11-5) trails Wisconsin and Purdue by one game in the loss column for first place in the Big Ten entering a 4 p.m. Sunday game at Maryland.

Illinois drops to 19-8 and 12-5.

“I didn’t like how we competed the first 4 ½ minutes of the game,” Holtmann said. “I didn’t think we had the competitive spirit we needed to and Illinois is really good. They try to fight you every possession.

“We needed to compete harder, and once we did that – Kyle kind of jump-started us – we got it to a manageable margin and then we got some momentum in the second half.

Bruce Hooley is the host of the We Tackle Life podcast on iTunes and GooglePlay.

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