Fighting Illini dial up defense, rout No. 8 Ohio State
CHAMPAIGN – Asked to describe the rigorous defensive drills Illinois conducted at practice this week, Brandon Paul was interrupted by his coach.
"Don't get me in trouble, Brandon," coach John Groce joked.
The Illini avoided a heap of trouble Saturday.
After a loss to .500 Purdue on Wednesday that lit a giant question mark over the Illini, they recovered and reclaimed their hard-shelled identity with a thorough 74-55 victory over No. 8 Ohio State in front of a sellout crowd at Assembly Hall.
"We just needed this game in general," Paul said. "We just wanted to protect our home court. I don't know why, but people got crazy after our last loss. It's one game."
Paul wore the same orange sneakers that he laced up in last season's victory against Ohio State in Champaign, when he scored 43 points. It certainly wasn't the shoes.
He didn't need to match that offensive flurry, but his 19 points and seven rebounds were enough to pace the No. 11 Illini (14-2, 1-1).
As much as they found their flow offensively, making 48.3 percent of their shots, the Illini's defense and hustle returned to the brand that Groce had instilled since his hire.
They held the Buckeyes (11-3, 1-1) to 33.3 percent shooting and scored 17 points off 16 turnovers – nearly six more than they average.
Illinois put an emphatic stop to a three-game streak of being outrebounded with a 40-30 edge on the boards against the Buckeyes. Players dove for loose balls, fought for rebounds and took charges.
Groce said that was his intention when he ramped up the intensity at practices.
"I laid my head down that night [after losing to Missouri on Dec. 22] and said, 'Those are my guys,'" Groce said, referencing the fight the Illini displayed. "I just wanted to feel that way tonight regardless of the score."
Illinois never trailed and led by as many as 25 points, allowing the Buckeyes only one field goal in the opening 8 minutes, 37 seconds of the second half. Ohio State's 20 field goals were a season low.
Center Nnanna Egwu continued to show progression with a career-high 16 points to go with eight rebounds. Point guard Tracy Abrams added 13 points with six rebounds, five assists and three steals.
After a slow start, Ohio State forward Deshaun Thomas scored 24 points, while Aaron Craft added 11. No other Buckeyes player scored more than eight points.
The game was a reunion for Groce and Ohio State coach Thad Matta. Groce served on Matta's staffs for 8 years at three different programs, including Ohio State.
"He's done a tremendous job of putting his stamp on it," Matta said.