Home > Illinois basketball > Illini again falter in clutch, this time to No. 1 Ohio State

Illini again falter in clutch, this time to No. 1 Ohio State

CHAMPAIGN – Illinois coach Bruce Weber kept Friday’s afternoon practice relatively lax because of Saturday’s unusually early 11 a.m. tipoff.

But before the 23rd-ranked Illini took on No. 1-ranked Ohio State, Weber tested his team’s ability to hold onto a lead – one of the Illini’s most glaring weaknesses during the first 19 games.

“I said, ‘OK, seven-point lead you got the ball with six minutes left.’ Because we’ve hit points in the game where we watch the clock, we don’t cut hard, we don’t move hard,” Weber said.

But the drill was no cure for the Illini’s late-game apprehension. After claiming an eight-point lead over the Buckeyes with 12:51 remaining at the Assembly Hall on Saturday, the Illini faltered in the clutch – a no-no against an undefeated Ohio State squad with a handful of NBA-caliber players – eventually losing its third of four games 73-68.

The Illini (14-6, 4-3 Big Ten) took a 50-42 lead seven minutes into the second half, but the Buckeyes (20-0, 7-0) picked up the defensive pressure and hit their offensive stride during a 22-4 run, sparked by freshman DeShaun Thomas’ first two three-pointers during Big Ten play.

Mike Tisdale’s step-back three-pointer cut the Buckeyes’ lead to 69-68 with 15 seconds left. But Ohio State won the game at the free-throw line, sinking 24 of 27 attempts including 19 of 21 in the second half.

Ohio State freshman sensation Jared Sullinger pounded the Illini in the post for 27 points – he made 13 of 15 free-throw attempts – and 16 rebounds.

Illinois has squandered a lead with 10 minutes remaining or less in four of its six losses and also lost to Penn State despite holding a tie with 22 seconds left.

“Can’t look at the scoreboard,” Weber said. “You have to keep playing. If you don’t push it, you let the team get their defense set up.

“I don’t think we’re selfish as a team (on offense), but we all try to hit home runs and grand slams and there’s no one on base.”

Added Tisdale: “We just started to play a little tentative. They turned up the pressure. We stop cutting. They made plays. We didn’t, and they ended up winning.”

The Illinois offense often becomes stagnant during the final minutes with players deferring to Demetri McCamey. But pestered by Ohio State freshman Aaron Craft, the Illini’s star guard had his worst scoring performance (five points on 2 of 11 shooting) in 49 games (two points at Clemson on Dec. 2, 2009).

“He just didn’t play well,” Weber said. “He’s been so good for us. He’s our guy. We still found a way to stay close. I think it shows as a team how good we are because he’s been the guy that’s made us go.”

Illinois’ post players came to play. Freshman Jereme Richmond continued his rise with the first double-double (18 points, 10 rebounds) of his career. Tisdale added 15 and didn’t back down against Sullinger, while Mike Davis had 11 points and seven rebounds.

Sustaining leads and winning close games separate good teams from the great ones. The Illini only have one win of eight points or less (Maryland on Nov. 19).

Meanwhile, Ohio State notched its fifth win of five or less points during its last six games.

“We can’t have another lapse,” Davis said. “If we have another lapse, we’re going to be a bubble team and we don’t want that to happen.”

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