COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- Their perfect season gone, the next
challenge for the Illini is turning a loss into a lesson.
"Everyone says a loss will help. We'll find out," Illinois
coach Bruce Weber said. "We'll learn from it and move on. This
next stretch is the most important of the year and that's what
people are going to remember."
Ohio State reserve forward Matt Sylvester hit a 3-pointer with
5.1 seconds left on Sunday to hand the top-ranked Illini their
first defeat, 65-64.
The Illini (29-1, 15-1) were trying to cap the Big Ten's first
unbeaten season in 29 years. Instead, they frittered away a
12-point lead in the second half and didn't score over the final 3
Sylvester scored a career-high 25 points -- eight more than his
previous best -- for a team that was banned by its own
administrators from the postseason two months ago to mitigate
possible NCAA violations committed under former coach Jim O'Brien.
"We were in the huddle and Coach told us, 'We're not going
halfway. We're going for the win," Sylvester said.
First-year coach Thad Matta drew up a play in which center
Terence Dials set a pick and rolled to the basket and guard Tony
Stockman was used as a decoy. The Illini bit on the deception.
"As we left the huddle, Matt said, 'I'll make the shot,"
Matta said. "And he did."
Ohio State (19-12, 8-8), a team with problems all year hanging
onto the ball, didn't have a turnover in the second half. The
Illini, who had hurdled tough games in loud environments all
season, had seven turnovers after halftime.
"We didn't take care of the ball and they made all the plays at
the end," Illinois center Jack Ingram said. "They won it."
It was the second straight season a team coached by Matta ended
a run at perfection. Matta's Xavier team handed Saint Joseph's its
first loss last season in the Atlantic 10 tournament.
"I'd like to be the other team just one time," Matta said with
a laugh. "I'm living for the day I'm the No. 1 team and someone
else is trying to do it to us."
The last team to reach the NCAA tournament without a loss was
UNLV in 1991. On Saturday, Matta had shown his players film clips
of several huge upsets and the Rebels' loss to Duke in the national
semifinals that year was one of them.
The Illini led 64-58 after James Augustine's layup with 3:23
left -- but didn't score again.
The Buckeyes ran off the next seven points, with Dials, who had
21 points, scoring on a half-hook before Sylvester drove the lane
for a left-handed scoop to cut the lead to 64-62 with 1:40
"They were loosey-goosey," Weber said of the Buckeyes. "They
didn't quit. They're an NCAA tournament team. Playing on their home
court, they made the plays."
With just over a minute left, Illinois' Deron Williams drove the
lane and wrapped a pass around a defender to Roger Powell, but
Dials swatted the shot away to teammate Je'Kel Foster. Sylvester
missed a 15-footer for the Buckeyes and then Illinois' Luther Head
misfired on a 3-pointer with 17 seconds left.
Ohio State called a timeout with 12 seconds left. Foster
inbounded to Brandon Fuss-Cheatham who passed to Sylvester on the
right wing, in front of the Ohio State bench. His quick shot seemed
to surprise the Illini, nestling in the net while a capacity crowd
at Value City Arena roared.
"The other day I was in the gym with Brandon and I said,
'Wouldn't it be unbelievable to score 25 points and hit the
game-winner against Illinois?" Sylvester said. "This feels so
good I can't describe it."
After a timeout, a pass was tipped out of bounds in front of the
Illinois bench. The Illini had one last chance with 2.2 seconds
left. Williams passed to Powell, but his hurried 3-pointer from the
top of the circle was well short and off the mark.
Fans rushed the court after the buzzer sounded, snapping photos,
jumping up and down and slapping the Buckeyes on the back.
Dee Brown led the Illini with 13 points, although he was rattled
all day by chants of "air ball" after several errant second-half
shots. He was 3-of-11 from the field and had only five points over
the final 34 minutes. Powell and Head each added 12 points.
Williams, who came in averaging 12.8 points a game, was 1-of-7
from the field and finished with two points.
"They just outplayed us," Brown said. "They deserved it."
Foster added 10 points for Ohio State, which enters this week's
Big Ten tournament as the No. 6 seed. After that, the Buckeyes will
Matta was asked if the victory over Illinois makes his team's
postseason ban even more difficult to accept.
"Yeah. I thought we could win the national championship," he
joked. "And nobody's ever going to know."
The Illini will regroup, playing as the team to beat in the
conference tournament and then in the NCAA tournament.
"I'd rather lose now than three weeks from now," Weber said.
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