Columbus, Ohio — With one of Ohio State's key big men out with an ankle injury, freshman E.J. Liddell stepped in and played his best game as a Buckeye so far.
Liddell slammed in a dunk that gave the Buckeyes the lead for good on the way to tying a career high with 17 points and pulling down a career-best 11 rebounds as No. 19 Ohio State pulled away for a 71-63 win over No. 23 Illinois on Thursday.
"Knowing that we're down a few guys, E.J. has definitely been stepping up," said Andre Wesson, a senior who played his last game at Value City Arena. "You can definitely see it in practice. He's just been playing better and better and just his energy today, his physicality, it was real big for us."
Liddell also played a career-high 26 minutes with junior forward Kyle Young out with an ankle injury.
Kaleb Wesson, Andre's younger brother, had 15 of his team-leading 19 points in the second half for the Buckeyes (21-9, 11-8 Big Ten), who have won four in a row and nine of their last 11. They are playing well at a critical time, with a road matchup against No. 16 Michigan State looming this weekend and the Big Ten tournament beginning Wednesday in Indianapolis.
"Good resolve," Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. "We were really tough-minded. We've been a very tough-minded group these last five weeks. We'll see if that continues. Obviously there's no permanency to that."
Ayo Dosunmu had 21 points and five assists to pace Illinois (20-10, 12-7), which saw its conference championship hopes fade a bit more after starting the day a half-game behind leaders Maryland, Wisconsin and Michigan State. Still, the Illini are poised for a berth in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in seven years.
Illinois hosts Iowa in its regular-season finale on Sunday.
Illinois led by as many as 11 in the first half and held a 37-30 lead at the break. The Buckeyes let fly with the 3-pointers in the opening frame but hit just one in seven tries.
With Illinois went up by seven in the second half, Ohio State chipped away and Kaleb Wesson's fadeaway jumper tied the score at 51 with 9:30 left, part of an 11-2 run by the Buckeyes, who then built an eight-point lead.
After Wesson picked up his fourth and fifth fouls in a 15-second span, Illinois got within five with a steal by Dosunmu and a coast-to-coast layup by Andres Feliz. But Liddell's shot in the paint and a couple of foul shots by Duane Washington Jr. gave the Buckeyes a 69-60 lead with 32 seconds remaining.
(At) Green Bay 78, Oakland 63: Amari Davis posted 19 points and six rebounds in the Horizon tournament quarterfinals. Cody Schwartz had 16 points for Green Bay (17-15). JayQuan McCloud added 11 points and six rebounds. Kameron Hankerson had 10 points.
Rashad Williams had 15 points and nine rebounds for the Golden Grizzlies (14-19). Xavier Hill-Mais added 13 points. He also had seven turnovers. Kevin Kangu had 11 points and six assists.
No. 5 San Diego State 73, Air Force 60: Jordan Schakel scored 14 of his 17 points in the second half as No. 5 San Diego State rallied in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West Conference tournament.
Schakel, who shot 1 of 5 in the first half, hit four 3-pointers in the second half for the top-seeded Aztecs (29-1), who rode a 21-3 run to their 13th consecutive quarterfinal victory.
Yanni Wetzell and Malachi Flynn had 16 points each for San Diego State, which is hoping to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. After surviving the scare from Air Force, SDSU plays the winner of Boise State-UNLV in the semifinals.
AJ Walker scored 18 points for Air Force (12-20), which advanced off a 77-70 win against Fresno State on Wednesday.
(At) UConn 77, No. 21 Houston 71: Christian Vital scored 26 points in his final home game, freshman James Bouknight added 17 points and Isaiah Whaley had 13 for the Huskies (18-12, 9-8 American Athletic Conference), who won their fourth straight game, but just their second this season over a ranked opponent.
Quentin Grimes scored 24 points and Caleb Mills added 20 for Houston (22-8, 12-5), which fell into a tie for second place in the conference.
UConn took control with a 15-2 run in the second half.