Illini 69, Buckeyes 60: Defense leads the way for a team that really can’t win without it

Illini 69, Buckeyes 60: Defense leads the way for a team that really can’t win without it

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CHAMPAIGN — Are Ohio State and Illinois as good as they were a season ago?

Nope, not yet.

Is Buckeyes star Brice Sensabaugh as good as Illini star Terrance Shannon Jr.?

Same answer.

For only the second time in the last six tries at State Farm Center, the Illini dealt the Buckeyes a loss Tuesday — a 69-60 game that was far from picturesque yet put the mature, rugged skills of Shannon and the defensive capability of his team on display.

Sensabaugh came in ranked second nationally among freshman at 17.5 points per game and had led the Buckeyes (11-9, 3-6 Big Ten) in scoring in 10 straight contests. But the 6-6, 235-pounder — who’d fill the heck out of a football uniform — was held to a quiet 14 points and at times was overwhelmed by the Illini’s length. Coleman Hawkins held him in check for much of the night, and Brandon Lieb, Matthew Mayer and Hawkins each swatted at least one Sensabaugh shot near the basket.

Shannon, a veteran lefty put together powerfully himself at 6-6, 225, began the game as the only power-conference player in the country averaging at least 18 points, five rebounds and three assists and as the Big Ten leader in free throws attempted. He carried the Illini (14-6, 5-4) with 12 points, six of them from the foul line, in the first half and finished with 17 — all his points coming off drives to the basket, with the exception being an arena-rocking two-handed jam off a steal and breakaway.

“I’m pretty hard to stop going downhill,” said Shannon, a Lincoln Park product who played three seasons at Texas Tech.

“That’s what I do — I stay aggressive. That’s my role on the team.”

Last year, the Buckeyes came here and won an 86-83 classic. That team got 31 points from Malaki Branham and 21 from E.J. Liddell to nip an Illini squad with 7-foot All-American Kofi Cockburn and four other starters who’ve since moved on from the program.

Sensabaugh’s Buckeyes aren’t close to what those Buckeyes were. And these Illini, to this point in an at-times-thrilling (see: top-10 wins against UCLA and Texas), at-times-maddening (see: an 0-3 start in conference play) season, clearly aren’t at the level of coach Brad Underwood’s previous three teams.

But this team can be so good defensively, any opponent is beatable. The Illini don’t shoot the three well enough, a cold reality that was on blatant display on a 5-for-28 night against Ohio State. They don’t have a natural lead point guard, relying on Shannon and Hawkins, mostly, to get the offense running. Their offense comes and goes — too often deep into hiding — but the swarming, long-armed defense the Illini play when they’re locked in is hard even for elite opponents to deal with.

“Defense wins championships,” Underwood said. “Offense can win you a game.”

The 6-9 Hawkins was especially dynamic on an 11-point, nine-rebound, six-assist, three-block night.

“I feel like we’re unbeatable when Coleman plays like that,” Shannon said.

Illinois has five more wins than any other Big Ten school over the last four seasons. In 2020, the Illini finished second in the league and were peaking heading into a postseason that was wiped out by the pandemic. In 2021, they led the conference in wins and doubled down with title in the league tournament. In 2022, they were regular-season co-champs.

What’s the ceiling this season? It could be pretty high if there are long stretches of games that play out like the best moments from Tuesday night. When Hawkins blocked Sensabaugh early in the second half, it led to a Dain Dainja dunk at the other end. Dainja then ripped the ball out of Sensabaugh’s hands on the baseline and passed to Hawkins, who galloped downcourt, drove the lane and kicked to Jayden Epps for a rare three that went in.

The house exploded as the score got to 48-31. When the Illini are good, they create that kind of excitement. Ask UCLA. Ask Texas.

But it’s going to take more — much more — of it for this team to get where it’s trying to go.

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