The Illini played better Thursday night. A hard-fought game against a good Ohio State team showed that.
But, in the end, the result was the same as it was in the team's prior four contests, meaning the longest losing streak of the John Groce Era was extended to five games after a 62-55 loss to the Buckeyes in Columbus.
But it wasn't, as has been the case at least once during this skid, due to effort. Groce was happy with the way his team bounced back Thursday, praising the defensive play and the offensive contributions of players who had been missing from box scores in recent games. It was the defensive play of Ohio State, though, that forced the Illini into this latest loss. The second half was plagued with turnovers, and a Buckeyes group that had been looking to return to the style of play that allowed it to race out to a 15-0 record did just that.
"I thought (Ohio State guards Aaron) Craft and (Shannon) Scott were great defensively," Groce said after the game. "If you would've said to me before the game that (Tracy) Abrams and (Rayvonte) Rice were going to go 2-for-16, I probably wouldn't have liked my chances. But we were right there ... At the end of the day, give their team defense credit, give Craft and Scott credit for the way they defended those two guys."
Ohio State's defense had been exceptional throughout its torrid start, but things had eased up in recent games, as the Buckeyes entered the date with the Illini on their own four-game losing streak. But they returned to form, forcing 15 turnovers, including 10 steals.
"I kept talking about it for two days: Take care of the ball, take care of the ball, take care of the ball," Groce said. "Easier said than done, obviously, I'm not picking on our guys, especially when those two guards are running around out there and you look at what their steal percentage is. Everyone talks about their steals, Scott and Craft, but it's the possessions where they disrupt you and disrupt your flow or an entry pass that affects your timing. I thought those two guys were tremendous defensively, I though their team really defended well, also."
But Groce's team played better. Struggling veterans Joseph Bertrand and Nnanna Egwu turned in strong performances, with Bertrand leading all scorers with 19 points and Egwu a rebound away from a double-double with 10 points and nine boards. And, Groce liked what his team did defensively, as the Buckeyes shot under their average field-goal percentage — scoring just 24 first-half points — and had 12 turnovers of their own.
"For two or three days we talked about that because we gave up 24 points in transition against Michigan State. I didn't think we guarded particularly well, and obviously they're a really good basketball team. We wanted to get back to doing some of those things better, and I did, I thought we did them better, especially in the first half," Groce said.
Still, though, the losing streak marches on. The Illini will have a tough time getting off it, too, with upcoming games at Indiana and home against Iowa and Wisconsin. The good news is the team looked better against Ohio State. The bad news is that many observers won't care until the Illini find the win column again.