COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Deshaun Thomas scored 19 points and No. 8 Ohio State regained its shooting touch, rolling over Illinois 83-67 on Tuesday night to remain in the thick of the Big Ten race.
Ohio State shot 65 percent from the field.
William Buford, much maligned for his recent poor shooting, had 17 points, and Aaron Craft added 11 to go with five assists. Jared Sullinger, third in the conference at 17.5 points a game, managed just nine before fouling out.
The Buckeyes (23-5, 11-4) stayed on the heels of Big Ten leader Michigan State with three games remaining. The Spartans are 11-3 in league play heading into a game at Minnesota on Wednesday night. Ohio State will visit Michigan State in the regular-season finale on March 4.
Meyers Leonard had 21 for Illinois (16-12, 5-10), which has lost six in a row and nine of 10.
The game was a dramatic turnaround for Brandon Paul, who had 43 points in Illinois’ 79-74 stunner over then-No. 5 Ohio State on Jan. 10. Paul almost destroyed the Buckeyes by himself, making 11 of 15 shots from the field – including 8 of 10 3-pointers – and 13 of 15 free throws.
But on this night, he managed just nine points on 2 of 9 shooting.
Ohio State improved to 18-1 at home this season, coming off a 58-48 loss at Value City Arena to Michigan State on Feb. 11 that ended a 39-game, home-winning streak. The Buckeyes made only 14 of 53 shots, an arena-record low of 26.4 percent. They connected on 2 of 15 3-pointers.
In their most recent game, a 56-51 loss to No. 17 Michigan on Saturday, they shot 38.8 percent.
In losing two of their last three, many of the Buckeyes have caught a lot of flak, but none more than Buford, who hit 2 of 12 from the field in the loss to Michigan State and 3 of 12 at Michigan.
But he was 7 of 9 – 2 of 3 from behind the arc – against Illinois.
The Illini never got closer than 16 points over the last 25 minutes. The loss will add to speculation that ninth-year coach Bruce Weber’s job is in jeopardy.
It has gotten so bad that Weber last week bemoaned that he had become too worried about winning and not “developing a culture and a toughness.”
In contrast to their most recent games, the Buckeyes came out hot.
In the opening 16 minutes against the Illini, they were 16 of 19 from the field (84 percent) and 5 of 7 (71 percent) behind the arc.
Ohio State went on 10-0 and 9-0 runs in the first nine minutes to go up 26-8. They had another 8-0 run by the 4-minute mark to make it 40-18. By that point, they had already made more field goals than they had in the Michigan State defeat – with 24 minutes left.
Four players had at least seven points in the first 20 minutes, led by Thomas’ 11.
Buford, who had four points against Michigan State and only six against Michigan, had seven at the break. He was 3 of 4 from the field. Craft and Smith were both 3 for 3.
Leonard was the only Illini able to solve Ohio State’s defensive pressure. He had 14 points at the break, taking advantage of his height advantage over Sullinger and running past backup big man Amir Williams for backdoor dunks.
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