CHICAGO — Same old song, same old dance for the Illini: Play well in spurts, and watch the game slip away.
Illinois closed the first half in a fury, getting steals and running for layups while capitalizing at the free-throw line. The second half, though, was different. No. 19 Ohio State controlled the glass and continued to ride the bus to the free-throw line that opponents have hopped aboard all season, shooting 21 in the second half alone.
The result was a Top-25 Ohio State team breaking away from Illinois on the way to a 77-67 win at the United Center in Chicago on Wednesday night.
Ohio State found its footing early after halftime. That was, in large part, thanks to big man Kaleb Wesson, who finished with 13 points and 7 rebounds, returning after foul trouble limited his first half.
Wesson scored six quick points in the second half that helped the Buckeyes (8-1, 2-0) wipe away a four-point lead that the Illini took into halftime. By the 13:23 mark in the second half, after a Duane Washington Jr. basket, the Buckeyes had a 52-51 lead and never relinquished it.
"The game was decided in the first five minutes of the second half," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. "Wesson was impactful and I think we had five fouls and were extremely passive, especially guarding the ball — especially on the perimeter. They made three or four passes the first possession, they never made those in the first half.
"It's something we're talking about, it's something we're addressing. We're looking for that fight, that consistency, that sustainability and any other adjective you'd like to use because when we do it, we're really good."
Illinois (2-7, 0-2 in the Big Ten) closed the first half on a 16-4 run in the final 4:41, arguably the best stretch of basketball the Illini have played all season. The defense forced six turnovers and the offense took advantage, mostly from the free-throw line (10-of-13).
Ohio State went 6:56 between made field goals late in the first with turnovers aplenty. Head coach Chris Holtmann called the Illini "relentless."
“I was very pleased with our first half,” Underwood said. “I thought for a six-,seven-,eight-minute stretch was as good as we've looked and was the way I envision us. We were flying around, took them out of what they wanted to do and the ball moved. We got some easy baskets. That was a really, really good stretch."
Flashes. Right now, that's what the Illini have. Little nuggets of hope like in the end of the Gonzaga game, the first half of the Iowa State game or spurts in the second half of the Notre Dame game.
There are various puzzle pieces sitting on the table, begging to be put together by someone, anyone will do.
There's no doubt in the locker room, but the next step is to close over the hump and close out basketball games. Illinois redshirt junior Kipper Nichols didn't know exactly how to keep the consistency and effort up, but it's imperative to improve those things.
"Forty minutes of basketball, 40 minutes of basketball and focusing in on the details for the duration of the game," Nichols said. "At certain points in the game our effort was outstanding. If we do that for 40 minutes and sustain that energy and effort, I think we can give ourselves a chance to win a lot of ball games and we can play with anybody in the country."
Nichols had his best game of the season with 18 points, but there were signs after Sunday’s loss at Nebraska that he may be starting to settle in offensively. He scored 12 points in that game.
On Wednesday, he had steals that turned into layups and was hitting 3-pointers, showing the scoring prowess he’d displayed last season. The Nebraska game was a confidence builder.
"Practice and continuing to trust the process," Kipper said of the change in his play, "and believing in the big guy right here (nudging towards Underwood). Just listening to everything he tells me to and go out there. What he wants is for us to go out and give our best effort. If we do that, good things will happen."
Despite the 32.8 shooting percentage (27 percent in the second half), Underwood thought opportunities were there. Illinois missed 13 layups, a massive problem for Underwood.
"I felt like the shots we got were really good ones," Underwood said.
In a game that had a foul stench hanging over it, the teams were called for a combined 49 fouls, Underwood fought until the end, even after sophomore guard Trent Frazier took a hard fall to the court with 1:19 left in the game, was helped to the locker room after writhing with pain on the court before checking back into the game.
Underwood was impassioned on his way off the United Center floor.
"I'm a fighter," Underwood said. "I'm going to be passionate. Sometimes it's important for our players to understand what passion is and sometimes it's important to understand that losing is not OK. Sometimes it's important to know that blowing an assignment repeatedly is not OK, but I love every one of them."