It would be easy to say that No. 2 Ohio State defeated Illinois 89-70 Tuesday night at Value City Arena because of senior guard David Lighty, who poured in 17 of his 21 points in the second half and came up with six steals.
But Lighty and the rest of the Buckeyes (26-2, 13-2) showed resilience and accountability after their worst performance of the season, a 76-63 loss at Purdue Sunday.
Against Purdue, Lighty hit 2 of 9 from the field and 5 of 10 from the free throw line. Against Illinois, he hit 8 of 16 from the field and 3 of 4 at the line. In 39 minutes, he also contributed four rebounds and two assists.
He wasn't the only one who bounced back. Junior guard William Buford, held to seven points by Purdue, scored 17 against Illinois, all in the first half. Senior guard Jon Diebler drove more to the basket to find open shots and added 13 points against the Illini. Freshman point guard Aaron Craft notched 12 points and six assists. Star freshman Jared Sullinger was most valuable on the boards, with 11 rebounds to go with his 12 points.
The most stunning turnaround came in the turnover department as OSU lost only three, as compared to 18 Sunday.
Asked about shaking off Sunday's loss, OSU coach Thad Matta said, "It’s such a long season that if you dwell on one game in this league you’ll tank. I give them credit for bouncing back because tonight was a big game for us.
"We talked about getting the quick turnaround. I said we couldn’t be tired because we had a great challenge tonight. We knew Illinois was going to come in and give us a good game. During timeouts I emphasized keeping the intensity up.''
Illinois coach Bruce Webber raved about Lighty.
"I think he’s the MVP, but probably won’t get it,'' Webber said. "He’s their heart and soul. Nothing against Jared Sullinger, he’s tremendous, but Lighty is their heart and soul and he’s the reason they win.''
Webber said the Illini (17-11, 7-8) don't have a player like Lighty.
"If you have a David Lighty, a heart and soul that comes everyday that does what you need, we don’t have that toughness and leadership,'' Webber said.
Lighty said he stayed aggressive even though his shots weren't falling in the first half.
"I think they went to a triangle-and-two style defense to chase Jon around, and just started leaving me and Craft open,'' Lighty said.
Matta said of Lighty, "I don’t think he’s gotten half the credit he deserves.''
Diebler said using him more aggressively made a difference for the Buckeyes.
"How teams are starting to guard me, it leaves a lot of open room for me to drive and when I do that it opens up shots for the other guys,'' he said.
Diebler said OSU wasn't shaken by losing two of its last three, both on the road.
''The most important thing is that we protect home court,'' Diebler said. "Losing two games isn’t the end of the world. But in order to win the Big Ten you have to take care of your home court.''
OSU hosts Indiana Sunday, visits Penn State on March 1 and hosts Wisconsin on March 6 to conclude the regular season.