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Illinois Smothers Listless Buckeyes

Suffice to say, John Groce will probably always remember the first time he got to coach a game against his former boss (and one of his best friends) Thad Matta.

Deshaun Thomas had 24 points for OSU

Groce’s Illinois team started hot, outworked their opponent in every way possible and never let up in pasting Matta’s Ohio State squad on Saturday at Assembly Hall in Champaign. The 11th-ranked Fighting Illini rolled to a 74-55 win over the eighth-ranked Buckeyes.

Groce served as a Matta assistant for eight years during stops at Butler, Xavier and Ohio State. He left in 2008 to become the head coach at Ohio U. He left OU after four seasons and is in his first year as the Illinois coach. His Illini bounced back from a rough 68-61 loss at Purdue in their Big Ten opener earlier in the week.

Brandon Paul led Illinois (14-2, 1-1) with 19 points and seven rebounds. Center Nnanna Egwu had a career-high 16 points and eight rebounds, while Tracy Abrams chipped in 13 points, six rebounds, five assists and three steals. Joseph Bertrand chipped in 12 points as well.

Deshaun Thomas led Ohio State (11-3, 1-1) with 24 points, connecting on 9 of 21 shots. Most of his makes came after OSU had already fallen behind by more than 20 points in the second half. Aaron Craft added 11 points and four steals, while Lenzelle Smith had eight points and seven rebounds.

The Buckeyes shot an abysmal 33.9 percent from the floor (20 of 59). That includes a poor 21.1 percent showing behind the three-point arc (4 of 19).

Seven of OSU’s shots were blocked by Illini defenders, while the Buckeyes committed an uncharacteristic 18 turnovers. Illinois outrebounded OSU 40-30 as well.

And this rout could have been much worse: Illinois only hit 29.6 percent (8 of 27) of its three-point tries.

The Fighting Illini jumped on OSU for leads of 5-0, 9-3, 13-6 and 23-11 on their way to a 37-25 halftime lead. And as poorly as the Buckeyes played in that half, they were lucky to only be down 12 at the break. In that first half, OSU hit 33.3 percent of its shots (9 of 27) and had 11 turnovers.

The news got worse to start the second half as the Illini outscored OSU 19-6 to start the second half and build a 25-point lead at 56-31 with 10:43 left in the game.

OSU had turnovers on its first two possessions of the game and the Illini made them pay with Egwu hitting a jumper and Abrams canning a three. The lead went to 13-6 with Paul driving for a basket. OSU’s Smith hit a three to cut it to 13-9.

But Illinois went on a 12-4 run, including an alley oop to Paul and layups by Abrams and Joseph Bertrand, to go up 25-11.

OSU’s Craft hit a jumper and fed Thomas for a dunk to cut it to eight at 27-19. But Myke Henry and D.J. Richardson each hit threes to help Illinois extend the lead to 16 at 37-21 with 2:20 left in the half. Craft made two free throws and Thomas got a layup off a Craft assist to cut the halftime margin to 37-25.

The Buckeyes had no answer to start the second half as they made just 1 of their first 11 shots in the half and had five turnovers as well in the first nine-plus minutes of the half. Meanwhile, Paul hit two threes, Richardson had one and Abrams had another to cap the 19-6 run to put the Illini up 56-31.

Ohio State (finally) dug in and went on a 14-4 run, keyed by 12 quick points from Thomas, to get the lead down to 14 at 60-46 with 6:40 left. But Illinois’ Richardson answered with a three from the corner to stem the tide and make it 63-46 with 6:16 left. The Buckeyes never got any closer after that.

Also Notable

* This was OSU’s worst loss by margin in just over three years, dating to a 65-43 loss at Wisconsin on Dec. 31, 2009. OSU played that game without injured All-American Evan Turner.

* Ohio State dropped to 0-3 against ranked teams this year. The Buckeyes previously lost to Duke and Kansas.

In those three games, OSU is a combined 63 of 192 from the floor (32.8 percent).

* Ohio State visits Purdue Tuesday night at 9 p.m. (ESPN). The Boilermakers dropped to 7-7 overall and 1-1 in Big Ten play with an 84-61 loss at Michigan State on Saturday.

* Click here for the box score of Illinois-OSU.

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