COLUMBUS – A one-point halftime lead on the road against a ranked Big Ten team?
“I’d say we can be in business,” Illinois coach John Groce said.
Instead, the Illini wasted an opportunity to end their doldrums and fell 62-55 at No. 17 Ohio State, dropping their fifth straight game.
The Illini (13-7, 2-5) allowed the Buckeyes to capitalize on turnovers and shoot better than 50 percent in the second half Thursday night at Value City Arena.
The most glaring deficiency was the statistic line next to the team’s brightest star. Rayvonte Rice had a career first, going scoreless on 0-for-8 shooting. He added four fouls and three turnovers as he pressed to find a cure for his slump.
Since straining an adductor muscle at Northwestern on Jan. 12, Rice has shot just 10-for-43 (23.3 percent) and averaged 7.6 points, which is about 10 points less than his season average entering Thursday’s game.
Groce credited Ohio State’s defense from Shannon Scott and Aaron Craft for keeping Rice in check.
“I think Ray’s going to pick it up,” teammate Nnanna Egwu said. “He will. He has a mindset of always attacking. He understands the next game is his game.”
Until this streak, the team never had lost more than three straight games under Groce, who is in his second season. The Illini lost five straight in February 2012 during former coach Bruce Weber’s final season before his firing.
“They’re a proud group,” Groce said. “You get on a streak like we have now at five, I mean, you can go in [the locker room] and it’s probably not a ball of joy in there.”
Yet there were reasons for the Illini to feel encouraged.
Egwu relocated his shooting touch after going scoreless the last two games, scoring 10 points and adding nine rebounds. After a four-point performance against Michigan State, Joseph Bertrand bounced back with 19 points, one off his season high.
But the Illini allowed Ohio State to shoot 54.2 percent in the second half, after holding the Buckeyes to 29.2 percent before halftime for a 25-24 lead at the break. Their live-ball turnovers also did them in.
Groce’s message the last 2 days was clear.
“Take care of the ball. Take care of the ball. Take care of the ball,” he said. “Easier said than done.”
The Illini had 15 turnovers. They committed four in six possessions as the Buckeyes reversed a 34-31 disadvantage into a 40-34 lead after a 9-0 run.
“I thought it was just a play or two that was going to determine it,” Groce said.