The Associated Press
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Aaron Craft made two free throws with 15 seconds left and Jon Diebler forced an Illinois turnover with 4 seconds on the clock as No. 1 Ohio State held on for a 73-68 win against the 23rd-ranked Illini on Saturday.
Jared Sullinger had 27 points and 16 rebounds for the unbeaten Buckeyes (20-0, 7-0 Big Ten), who went on a 14-0 run in the second half in rallying for the victory.
The Illini (14-6, 4-3) made it close, though. Mike Tisdale’s 3-pointer brought Illinois within 69-68 with 16 seconds left. But Craft’s free throws and Diebler’s strip preserved the win.
Talk in Illinois for much of the week centered on the last time the two teams met with one undefeated, in March 2005. Ohio State ended Illinois’ unbeaten run that season, though Illinois went on to play in the NCAA title game, losing to North Carolina.
Sullinger’s brother, J.J., was part of that Buckeye team.
Sullinger scored 11 points early in the second half Saturday to keep the Buckeyes in the game, and told his teammates not to worry as they walked to the bench down 50-42 with just under 13 minutes to play.
He lived up to his billing, often dealing with two Illinois defenders.
Thirteen of his points came from the free throw line, where he missed only twice.
With 12:52 left in the game and the Buckeyes down 50-42 after Mike Davis’ layup, Sullinger walked to the bench telling teammates “Don’t worry, don’t worry,” as he waved his hands back and forth.
Diebler and Deshaun Thomas must have listened.
Diebler started the key run with two free throws with 11:39 left in the game and he and Thomas hit 3-pointers on three-consecutive possessions to end it. The first one by Thomas tied the game at 50 and the last, also by Thomas, gave Ohio State a 56-50 lead it wouldn’t surrender.
In a rough, physical first half, Sullinger led the Buckeyes with 11 points and eight rebounds, playing much of the first 20 minutes with gauze in his nose to stop a nose bleed.
But Illinois’ Jereme Richmond, another highly recruited freshman, traded shots and boards with the big Buckeye.
After trailing 20-12 with just under 10 minutes left in the half, Richmond scored on three consecutive possessions, all in heavy traffic under the basket, to cut Ohio State’s lead to 20-18.
Sullinger, though, answered with 8:12 to play with a strong, two-handed dunk.
Illinois closed the first half with an 8-0 run, the last points coming from Brandon Paul’s jumper on the break that made the score 34-33.
Much of the run, though, was a direct result of work by Richmond.
He started it with a short bucket after grabbing the rebound off Tisdale’s miss with 2:24 to play, cutting the Buckeye lead 33-28.
On Illinois’ next possession Richmond fed Mike Davis for a dunk that cut the deficit to three.
With 54 seconds to play, Richmond buried a short basket over Sullinger, forcing the Buckeye freshman to the floor in the process. That put the Illini within two, and set the stage for Paul’s lead-grabbing layup and free throw.
Richmond had 18 points and 10 rebounds for Illinois and Tisdale added 15 points.