I-L-L! Nuff said!!!— Kendall Gill (@KendallG13) March 6, 2021
No. 4 Illinois has positioned itself to make a run at a No. 1 seed in the 2021 NCAA Tournament after following up its road win against No. 2 Michigan with a victory against No. 7 Ohio State in Columbus. Star guard Ayo Dosunmu returned to the lineup and helped the Fighting Illini close on a 9-0 run to win 73-68.
An EJ Liddell 3-pointer with 3:48 remaining gave Ohio State a 68-64 lead that seemed to indicate a final turning of the tide in a second half that saw the Buckeyes take control of the game. Illinois big man Kofi Cockburn had not been as dominant as he was in the first half and the Buckeyes, particularly Liddell, started playing with some real confidence on the offensive end of the floor. The tone at the final media timeout was suggested a streak-snapping Buckeyes win was in the cards, but a scoreless final 3:48 left Chris Holtmann and Ohio State with a fourth straight loss heading into the Big Ten Tournament.
One of the biggest keys to Illinois' play down the stretch in this back-and-forth battle between top-10 teams was the presence of Dosunmu, who scored the go-ahead basket with 44 seconds left and led Illinois with 19 points on 7-for-10 shooting. The junior played 36 minutes in his first game back from a facial injury that cost him three games, and when it came to those crunch-time possessions it was clear Illinois was happy to have its closer back on the floor.
For Ohio State, the loss likely eliminates it from 1-seed contention while Illinois moves closer to securing a spot on the top line for Selection Sunday. The win, along with the victory against Michigan, also cements Illinois' status as a real national championship contender worthy of mention alongside Gonzaga, Baylor and the Wolverines.
Three things to note about the win:
1. Dosunmu is the best closer in college basketball: While it was easy to joke about Illinois being just as good without Dosunmu in the lineup given its stunning blowout win at Michigan, the junior guard and All-American candidate showed just how valuable he is in a close game with his play on Saturday. Illinois does have players that can step up in his absence, but when it comes to winning time against a quality opponent, the Fighting Illini want the ball in Ayo's hands -- mask and all -- because he's proven time after time during his career in Champaign. The stakes have never been higher than they are now as the best Illinois team in more than a decade heads to the postseason. So when the season hangs in the balance during the closing minutes of an NCAA Tournament game at some point in the next month, fans will be a little bit less anxious knowing they have the best closer in the sport at the guard position. For contrast, look at Ohio State, which missed all of its final 10 shots of the game and couldn't get a winning look in the final minutes. EJ Liddell is a tremendous player for Ohio State and in the Big Ten, but he alone couldn't take over the game like Dosunmu.
2. Andre Curbelo represents the kind of depth that can make a difference in March: Curbelo came off the bench to tie Dosunmu with a team-high 19 points to go with five rebounds and a team-high six assists. The freshman guard had the most playing time he's had since early January and finished with the team's best plus-minus (+13) after going 6-for-8 from the field and 6-for-7 from the free-throw line in 28 minutes. Brad Underwood also got some strong crunch time play from Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Da'Monte Williams as the Illinois bench outscored Ohio State's bench 28-10. When foul trouble or potential injuries hit, Illinois has a couple of strong options to fill in the gaps and help keep the team's national championship hopes alive in the tournament.
3. Ohio State's NCAA Tournament future is all about the matchups: The Buckeyes could make the Final Four or could get bounced in the second round, depending on the draw from the selection committee and how the bracket breaks once the tournament is underway. This is an Ohio State that rates as one of the smallest in the Big Ten and sometimes that lack of inside presence becomes an issue for the Buckeyes when going against teams with dominant bigs. Halftime adjustments from Chris Holtmann and his staff helped take a strong start from Kofi Cockburn and neutralize his impact in the second half, but points in the paint broke Illinois' way on Saturday night and other spots in this four-game losing streak have brought that size disadvantage into focus, most notably the losses to Michigan and Iowa.