By Rusty Miller | Associated Press
COLUMBUS -- All Lenzelle Smith Jr. wanted was to see his teammates happy for a change.
They hadn’t been for the past 19 days.
LaQuinton Ross scored 18 points and Smith had 16 — and each added critical points down the stretch — to help No. 17 Ohio State end a four-game skid with a 62-55 win over Illinois on Thursday night.
“You want to see your team smile as much as possible,” said Smith, a senior. “I can tell you that prior to this game there were no smiles, there was no laughter. Guys were kind of in their shells. Now I feel like everybody’s out now and I’m looking forward to playing the next game with a lot of confidence.”
Aaron Craft added 11 points, six rebounds and five assists for the Buckeyes (16-4, 3-4 Big Ten), who had lost four in a row for the first time since 2007-08.
“This was a big win,” coach Thad Matta said. “We told our guys this was a one-game season just from the standpoint that we knew we had six days off afterward. To their credit they did a tremendous job of laying it all on the line.”
Over their win drought, the Buckeyes had wilted in the final 5 minutes, had shot poorly and hadn’t been able to stop opposing teams.
Against another team stuck in a four-game slide, they finally found some answers.
Illinois (13-7, 2-5) pulled to 41-40 on 3s by Jon Ekey and Joseph Bertrand and pulled even at 46 on Tracy Abrams’ slash through the lane. He missed the cap on a possible three-point play, however, and at the other end Shannon Scott fed Ross for a 3 from the left wing.
The teams traded missed chances until Smith stepped in front of a bad pass by Tracy Abrams and fed Scott for a left-handed layup with 3:50 remaining for a 51-46 advantage.
With the Buckeyes hanging on 52-50, Ross drove the lane against the Illinois zone and was fouled, banking in a shot and adding the accompanying free throw with 2:07 left.
“It was everybody being connected tonight,” Ross said of the difference for the Buckeyes. “We had a lot of togetherness. You saw guys jumping up and down. It was just a group effort. Everybody did what they had to. We pitched in.”
The Illini then turned it over on an offensive foul by Rice before Smith poured in a 3 from in front of the Ohio State bench for a 58-50 lead with 75 seconds remaining.
Illinois never threatened again.
“I thought Ross’ and-1 was huge. I thought Smith’s 3 was huge,” said Illini coach John Groce, a former Ohio State assistant. “Those were two big plays.”
Bertrand had 19 points, Ekey 11 and Nnanna Egwu 10 for the Illini (13-7, 2-5), who haven’t won since Jan. 4 and play three of their next four games against ranked opponents.
Rayvonte Rice, averaging 17.4 points a game, was 0-for-8 from the field and went scoreless. The Illini have lost their last six Big Ten road games and fell to 1-4 against ranked teams this season.
The Buckeyes won their first 15 games and were ranked No. 3 when they suddenly spiraled down the polls and the Big Ten rankings. They fought back to score 20 of the final 23 points to force overtime at No. 5 Michigan State before losing. Then they blew a nine-point lead in the second half in a home loss to Iowa.
In a tough, two-game road trip they fell by 10 at Minnesota and, thoroughly discouraged, they lost again at Nebraska, which hadn’t won a conference game until then.
Surrounded by doubters, they had their season slipping away.
But then they shot 54 percent in the second half on Thursday night and forced nine second-half turnovers to regain some momentum.
“We tried to do our best to put the losing streak behind us,” Craft said. “This game wasn’t about that. It was about trying to come out and find a way to be better than Illinois. We were a tougher team down the stretch than we have been. That’s what matters.”