Buckeyes stop here
Illinois knocks off Ohio State in Big Ten tourney title gamePosted: Sunday March 16, 2003 5:55 PM
Updated: Sunday March 16, 2003 8:19 PM
Except, maybe, a better seed in the NCAA tournament.
Still irked at finishing second in the regular season, Illinois won the Big Ten tournament with an easy 72-59 victory over weary Ohio State on Sunday. But that apparently wasn't enough to impress the NCAA selection committee, which seeded the Illini fourth in the West, perhaps the toughest region.
"I think when you first see it, you say, 'Oh, gee, I thought we could have been a three,"' Illinois coach Bill Self said. "I'm not going to say it didn't mean anything to win the tournament, it means a lot. That's a championship we wanted, it was a goal and we got it.
"I don't know if we helped ourselves seedingwise, but we helped ourselves from a confidence standpoint."
In winning for the eighth time in nine games, the Illini (24-6) proved that not only are they the Big Ten's best team, they're its deepest.
Illinois' two best players -- Big Ten player of the year Brian Cook and freshman guard Dee Brown -- had off days, but it hardly mattered as the rest of the Illini picked up the slack.
Roger Powell scored 16 points, and Sean Harrington had 12, all from 3-point range. James Augustine, who struggled the past few games, had a monster day with 12 points and 10 rebounds.
Cook still finished with 15 points, but he was a dismal 4-of-16. Brown had only four points, and had four turnovers to go with his five assists.
"Everybody played collectively well, and we had to have a great team effort," Powell said. "That's what we need to win games like this. Hopefully we can carry this into the tournament -- the big tournament."
Ohio State (17-14) was playing its fourth game in as many days, and its fatigue showed. The Buckeyes had trouble finishing their shots, going 20-of-55 (36 percent) from the field, and they were no match for the Illini inside.
If not for yet another big effort by Brent Darby, who finished with 27 points and six assists, the game would have been a total rout.
"I got a little winded out there," Darby said. "But when you play a team like Illinois, that's going to happen."
The Buckeyes had won their first three games by a total of 11 points, and they had little left to challenge Illinois. Powell and Harrington beat Ohio State from the perimeter, while Augustine took care of business inside.
In addition to outrebounding Ohio State 39-36, Illinois outscored the Buckeyes 34-18 in the paint and had a 16-4 edge on second-chance points.
"I think we can be a really dangerous team," Cook said. "We didn't play as well as we wanted today, but everybody picked each other up and that's the mark of a great team."
Illinois held the Buckeyes without a field goal for almost seven minutes midway through the first half while it ripped off an 11-3 run. Powell started it with a driving layup, and Cook capped it by making a free throw after a technical foul to give Illinois a 33-20 lead, its largest of the half.
The Buckeyes pulled within 36-25 at halftime, but Illinois came out gunning to start the second. Cook scored on a putback and then hit a 3-pointer, and Powell added a hook shot to give the Illini a 43-27 lead with 17:56 still to play.
Illinois wasn't done with its dazzling displays, either. After Darby made two free throws, the Illini ran off seven points in just 49 seconds to go up 52-30 with 15:56 to play.
"There's a lot of answers on that team," Ohio State coach Jim O'Brien said. "They put five guys out on the court that have to be defended at all times."
But Ohio State has an impressive player of its own, and Darby gave the Illini one last challenge. Trailing by 16, Darby made three straight 3-pointers to pull Ohio State within 60-51 with 7:02 to play.
After a timeout to regroup, Augustine made two free throws and Harrington drilled a 3-pointer to put Ohio State away for good.
When the buzzer sounded, the Illini threw their arms into the air and quickly put on their Big Ten championship hats and T-shirts. Wisconsin may have won the regular-season title, but Illinois was the Big Ten's best team when it counted.
"Wisconsin won something we thought we should have had and we couldn't get that back," Self said. "This was the only way we could make amends."