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Thomas leads No. 14 Ohio State past Illinois 68-55
OHIO ST 68, ILLINOIS 55

By RUSTY MILLER
AP Sports Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- First, No. 14 Ohio State won a game. Then,
the Buckeyes watched a share of the Big Ten championship slip
away.



Hours after Ohio State beat Illinois 68-55 on Sunday behind
Deshaun Thomas' 19 points, the Buckeyes missed out on a piece of
the conference title when No. 2 Indiana overcame a four-point
deficit in the final minute to eke past No. 7 Michigan 72-71.



The victory gave the Hoosiers their first outright Big Ten crown
in two decades. Ohio State (23-7, 13-5) had to be content with a
strong stretch run and a close second-place finish. Its string
of conference titles ended at three in a row.



"I like where we are now," Buckeyes coach Thad Matta said after
his team's win. "With everything that's transpired in college
basketball, we won five straight games (to close the regular
season). You hope this team finishes in the final poll in the
top 10. We've done that a lot of times now, which is hard to do
in college basketball."



Beyond that, the Buckeyes will get ready for the conference
tournament this week in Chicago where they'll be the No. 2 seed
and play Friday night in the quarterfinals against the winner of
seventh-seeded Purdue and 11th-seeded Nebraska.



Point guard Aaron Craft said the Buckeyes took care of their
business and were resigned that their fate was in another team's
hands.



"There's no point worrying about something that we have no
control over," said Craft, who had 14 points and six assists
and, as usual, created havoc on defense for the Buckeyes in
their win over Illinois. "Obviously, we would love for (a
Michigan win) to happen. But if it doesn't, it's out of our
hands. We did what we needed to do."



Three weeks ago Sunday, the thought of Ohio State even being
included in the title talk was almost inconceivable. The
Buckeyes were routed 71-49 at Wisconsin, a loss that knocked
them two games behind the Big Ten leaders with just five left.
More than that, it seemed like a psychological blow to a team
that came home humiliated.



"As I told them, a lot of people had this team dead to rights a
month ago," Matta said. "And they haven't lost since then."



Just in the past five days, the Buckeyes played No. 2 Indiana,
which only needed a win on its home court to clinch its first
outright Big Ten title in two decades. Instead, the Buckeyes
hung a 67-58 upset on the Hoosiers.



Then on Sunday the Buckeyes took on an Illinois team that had
manhandled them in early January, 74-55.



"You look at what we had to do just in terms of this week, going
to Bloomington and you ride the emotional high coming off (the
win there)," Matta said. "Then you're playing (an Illinois) team
that was at one point in the top 10 in the country. From the
standpoint of what these guys have been able to do, I couldn't
be prouder of them."



Thomas, the Big Ten's leading scorer at 19.8 points a game, had
another strong game while possibly playing his final home game
for Ohio State.



"We'll think about that decision at the end of the (NCAA)
tournament," said Thomas, a junior who almost left for the NBA
draft a year ago. "Right now, there's a lot more basketball
left. I'm just going to enjoy my time and try to get to the
Final Four. That's all I'm worried about now."



The Buckeyes beat the Illini (21-11, 8-10) by overcoming a
stalemate after the first 13 minutes, closing the half on a 12-2
run and then holding off any threats at the end.



"The end of the first half, they made a run on us and got a nice
little lead going into halftime," said Brandon Paul, who led the
Illini with 21 points. "That definitely boosted their
confidence. Then we didn't find ways to stop them down the
stretch."



Illinois pulled as close as 51-44 on consecutive 3-pointers by
Paul and Myke Henry.



But then Craft, who has broken out of a subpar offensive season
with several big scoring efforts, drove the lane and banked in a
layup in traffic. After an Illini miss, Thomas fed Ravenel for a
three-point play.



Craft 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.



"It looks like from watching film they're playing the best that
they've played," said first-year Illinois coach John Groce, a
longtime assistant to Matta at Ohio State and former Ohio
University head coach. "They're getting contributions from a lot
of guys. They're starting to connect a little bit and play
together."



The Illini will play ninth-seeded Minnesota on Thursday in the
opening round of the conference tournament.



Ohio State's winning streak provides some powerful momentum -
for the Big Ten tournament and beyond.



"I think it matters because you have the momentum," Ravenel said
of the five straight wins. "You've got the taste of winning in
your mouth and you want to keep it there. You just want to keep
playing, and keep winning."



---



Follow Rusty Miller on Twitter:
http://www.twitter.com/rustymillerap

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