By DAVID MERCER
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Just before halftime on Saturday, Illinois point guard Tracy Abrams crashed into the Ohio State bench chasing a loose ball. After bending over in pain for a long minute he hobbled off the court without the ball.
Abrams’ tough play already had the respect of first-year coach John Groce.
And after a game of similar hard-nosed effort by Abrams and his teammates, the 11th-ranked Illini had a 74-55 blowout win over No. 8 Ohio State just days after dropping their Big Ten opener — and getting out-toughed, as Groce put it — to Purdue.
“Oh, I love it — that’s toughness plays, passion, inspiring plays,” Groce said. “Any time a guy sacrifices his body to make a play for his team, that’s the highest level of teamism — I don’t know if that’s a word.”
The win by Illinois (14-2, 1-1 Big Ten) came at the expense of Groce’s former boss, Buckeyes coach Thad Matta. Groce was an assistant to Matta at Ohio State (11-3, 1-1) before taking over as head coach at Ohio.
Matta agreed that Illinois earned the win with tough defense. But, as he watched 6-foot-11 sophomore center Nnanna Egwu score a career- high 16 points — a number of them on long jump shots — the longtime coach said the game had a sense of inevitability about it, too.
“We’d seen that he could shoot, but when he started knocking down 17-footers, it was like, ‘Geez, this is really their day,’” he said.
Brandon Paul led Illinois with 19 points and had seven rebounds. Abrams added 13 points and five assists, and reserve Joseph Bertrand scored 12 points. Egwu also had eight rebounds.
Wednesday’s 68-61 loss to Purdue — a team with a .500 record heading into Big Ten play — was Illinois’ second loss in three games after a 12-0 start. It left the Illini and their fans with questions about how good this team might be, and with Ohio State on the schedule, a tough test ahead. The Buckeyes had won six of the last seven games between the teams.
But the Illini started fast and led 37-25 at halftime. They used a 13-2 run early in the second half to build a 50-27 lead.
Illinois’ stingy defense shut down the Buckeyes, who shot just 33 percent from the field and turned the ball over 16 times.
Groce said the Buckeyes’ turnovers were a gift his team used early.
“We got some points off turnovers in the first half that I think ignited us,” he said, adding that he didn’t expect Ohio State to cough up the ball. “No — in fact, I said before the game they’re going to take care of the ball, that’s what (Matta’s) teams always do.”
The efforts of Illini big men — Egwu, Sam McLaurin and Tyler Griffey — were a big part of Illinois’ defensive success. Ohio State had just 10 points in the paint in the first half.
Deshaun Thomas led Ohio State with 24 points, but beyond him the Buckeyes had no one to turn to for offense. Aaron Craft had a quiet 11 points and Lenzelle Smith Jr. finished with eight, all in the first half.
“They played good defense and we could never get that one bucket to kind of free us up a little bit, free our minds a little bit,” Matta said.
Illinois added to its edge early in the second half with a 13-2 run. Bertrand finished it, driving to the basket and hitting a short jumper as the shot clock wound down for a 50-27 lead with 15:05 to play.
The Buckeyes scratched their way back within 60-46 with 6:37 left on a jumper by Thomas. It capped a 15-4 run that melted what had been a 25-point deficit at 56-31 and put the sellout crowd — still uneasy about just how good Illinois might be — on edge.
But Richardson answered Thomas’ shot with a 3-pointer with 6:13 to play. That put the Illini up 63-46 and let the crowd roar with relief.
Paul followed that with two free throws and Egwu added a dunk that pushed the lead to 67-46 with 4:52 to play, and Ohio State was all but finished.
The offensive production from Paul was no surprise. He came into the game averaging a team-high 18.5 points a game. But Egwu’s big game was out of the blue.
Egwu came into the game averaging 6.0 points and had never scored more than 12.
“The guards did a good job of finding me,” he said. “It’s all about just getting a good flow on offense, and that’s what we did today.”
Illinois opened up a 14-point lead midway through the first half, using a 12-2 run and taking advantage of poor shooting by the Buckeyes. Bertrand capped it with a jump shot in the paint for a 25-11 lead with 10:08 to play that charged up what had been a quiet crowd.
Ohio State now heads into a tough stretch — at Purdue, at home against No. 2 Michigan, and back on the road at Michigan State. But Matta said his team’s letdown at Illinois — and the lack of anyone to help Thomas — isn’t at this point a huge concern.
“I’m not like panicked, like ‘Oh my God!’” he said. “This team has shown it can play some pretty good basketball.”
Illinois’ win was important, Paul said, but, like Matta, he said he didn’t want to make too big a deal out of any one game.
“I think we just needed this game in general,” he said. “I don’t know why, but people got crazy after our last loss. But it’s a long season.”