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 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. Aaron Craft had a quiet 11 points.