Illini's rally falls short against Ohio State
Like a number of high-profile recruitments, seeing two-time Illinois Mr. Basketball winner E.J. Liddell commit to Ohio State two years ago stung the Illini program.
When you lose the player to a Big Ten rival, it's a loss that keeps giving -- not just missing out on what Liddell would have meant in an Illinois uniform, but dealing with him in conference action.
Liddell returned to the state Saturday to play No. 14 Illinois. The 2018 and 2019 Mr. Basketball winner has become a standout for the No. 21 Buckeyes, averaging 13 points and 7 rebounds a game.
The Illini got Liddell at his best, not just the 6-foot-7 sophomore scoring inside, but a surprise threat from beyond the arc. Entering the game having made just 3 of his 18 3-point attempts on the season, Liddell buried three 3-pointers early in the first half.
That sparked his teammates, who drilled 6 of their first 7 3-point attempts in opening an 18-point lead on their way to an 87-81 win.
Liddell finished with a career-high 26 points and 7 rebounds. He hit more 3-pointers Saturday than Ohio State's first 13 games combined, and he also was deadly with his midrange game.
"E.J. was the best player on the court today," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said of the Belleville West product. "Props to him. He's not been a big 3-point shooter and he got it going."
Unlike earlier comebacks from 15 points behind to beat Penn State and Northwestern, Illinois (9-5, 5-3) came up short. The Illini got as close as 83-81 on Adam Miller's 3-point shot, then appeared to force a turnover when replays showed Duane Washington stepped out of bounds with 13.7 seconds left.
Instead Trent Frazier was called for a foul, Washington made 2 free throws, and the Illini succumbed to their second straight home defeat, one that puts them in a difficult spot with a stretch of upcoming games against Michigan State, Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan.
"We have to get everybody back to playing for each other and didn't feel like we had that going today," Underwood said.
Illinois certainly needs to start games better. Ohio State went on 10-0 and 15-0 runs in the first 10 minutes.
"I'm at a loss in terms of the emotional disconnect that we have," Underwood said. "You cannot get down 18 to teams in this league continually and expect to fight back."
Spotting Ohio State (11-3, 5-3) such a big lead, the Illini didn't leave themselves any margin for error. They again hurt themselves at the free-throw line, missing two front ends of a 1-and-1s in the first half while trailing 43-28 at halftime, with both Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn scoring just 4 points.
Both had much better second halves, Dosunmu finishing with 22 points and 5 assists and Cockburn 15 points and 11 rebounds, making all 7 of his shots from the field.
Cockburn again struggled at the line, going 1 of 5, including two misses after a flagrant foul that took the momentum out of a second half run.
Miller, who followed Liddell by winning the 2020 Mr. Basketball, added 14 points and 7 rebounds. But the Illini couldn't overcome the Buckeyes making 11 of 21 3s, or another dreadful start.
"You have to do whatever you can do to get a stop and we weren't doing that," Miller said. "If we lock in a little more I think we'll be fine."