WMBD/WYZZ-TV STAFF - COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Despite losing three of its last four games, Illinois is looking forward to playing close to home in this week's Big Ten tournament at United Center in Chicago.
Even a 68-55 loss at No. 14 Ohio State on Sunday didn't dampen the expectation of playing for keeps in front of a lot of friendly faces.
"It's fun. It's closer to home for many of us," guard Brandon Paul said. "We've got a lot of Chicago guys. At the same time, we have to come out with the mindset that we can compete with any team. We have to play with a chip on our shoulders."
Paul had 21 points and the Illini (21-11, 8-10 Big Ten) played on even terms with the Buckeyes (23-7, 13-5) before and after an Ohio State surge late in the half turned the game around.
The Buckeyes scored 12 of the last 14 points in the first half to take a 33-24 lead and then held off any challenges the rest of the way.
"The biggest segment of the game was the 12-2 Ohio State run to end the first half," said first-year coach John Groce, a former assistant to Ohio State's Thad Matta. "Basically, you take that 12-2 run out, we're right there."
The Illini kept fighting back. They pulled as close as 51-44 on consecutive 3s by Paul and Myke Henry.
But then Ohio State's Aaron Craft, who has broken out of a lethargic offensive season with several big scoring efforts, drove the lane and banked in a layup in traffic. After an Illini miss, Big Ten scoring leader Deshaun Thomas, who finished with 19 points, fed Evan Ravenel for a three-point play.
Craft, who had 14 points and six assists and played his usual physical defense, then rebounded at the other end and tossed in a 3 late in the shot clock and the lead was 15 with less than six minutes left.
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