COLUMBUS — It took a freshman to deliver the biggest blow on Senior Night.
In a high-level game with plenty of emotion on both sides, Ohio State freshman forward E.J. Liddell, an Illinois native who picked the Buckeyes over his home-state Fighting Illini, threw down a two-handed dunk to give Ohio State a 53-51 lead with 9:02 to play.
It was Ohio State’s third rally from a three-possession deficit, and it would be the last one it needed. Behind Liddell’s first career double-double, a second-half surge from Kaleb Wesson and more strong play from CJ Walker, the Buckeyes (21-9, 11-8 Big Ten) dealt a blow to Illinois’ Big Ten title hopes with a 71-63 win in front of an electric atmosphere at Value City Arena.
It was a big night on multiple fronts. Before the game, Ohio State recognized its two seniors, Andre Wesson and Danny Hummer, in addition to three team managers. At the half, the Buckeyes recognized their 1960 national championship team. They were brought to center court, where their trophy sat on a covered table, and each member was announced to the crowd with the loudest applause going to Jerry Lucas and Bob Knight. And after the game, Wesson and Hummer would both address the crowd.
Meanwhile, the Buckeyes rallied from an 11-point deficit, a nine-point deficit and then a seven-point deficit during the course of the game and reclaimed the lead each time against Illinois (20-10, 12-7). The last time they did it, they did it with style.
After trailing 51-47, Liddell’s dunk with 9:02 to play got the crowd roaring. It came after a pair of Walker free throws and started what would be a 16-4 run during which Liddell had six points and Kaleb Wesson had five as the Buckeyes started to beat on the Illini in the post.
That led to a 63-55 lead with 3:38 to play.
Kaleb Wesson scored 15 of his 19 points after the half. Walker finished with 15 points on 11 free throws. The Buckeyes have now won nine of their last 11 games.
Both teams would eventually settle in after a harried start that saw a combined six turnovers on the first 11 possessions and 13 fouls in the first 10 minutes of the game. Ohio State opened the scoring with senior walk-on Danny Hummer, who started for the only time in his career, converting a left-landed layup from the right block to the delight of the crowd.
He added a steal on Illinois’ second possession and would play until the first media timeout, when he was replaced by freshman forward E.J. Liddell. He was in the game longer than Ohio State leading scorer Kaleb Wesson, who picked up two fouls in the first four minutes and sat with 16:33 to play.
Wesson would return before the end of the half and not pick up any more fouls, but his effectiveness was limited. It helped, though, that Illinois’ primary big men, Kofi Cockburn and Georgi Bezhanisivili, would pick up two and three fouls, respectively, during the half as well.
That didn’t slow down Illini guard Ayo Dosunmu, who at one point scored 11 of his team’s 13 points to build a 35-28 lead as the Illini would maintain that margin into the break with the score at 37-30. Dosunmu had 14 by halftime, and his run helped Illinois regain control after the Buckeyes had tied the game at 24 with 6:02 to play in the half.
Ohio State was again without junior forward Kyle Young, who missed his third game with an ankle injury suffered during the Feb. 23 win against Maryland.
The members of the national championship team weren’t the only ones to be recognized during the game. To celebrate Matt Sylvester’s iconic shot to defeat undefeated Illinois 15 years ago, Sylvester and teammates Brandon Fuss-Cheatham, J.J. Sullinger and Terence Dials were all recognized during a timeout.