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Ohio State ends losing streak by getting just a little better

Aaron Craft chipped in 11 points while stepping up his defensive game to help Ohio State snap its losing streak at four games. (Paul Vernon/AP)Aaron Craft chipped in 11 points and stepped up his defense to help Ohio State snap its losing streak. (Paul Vernon/AP)

On Wednesday, the day before Ohio State attempted to end an odorous four-game losing streak, Thad Matta did not deny his team’s abundant offensive struggles. But the Buckeyes coach did attempt to mitigate them somewhat: He looked around the country and saw everyone struggling with shooting to some degree.

Then he looked on the Value City Arena court on Thursday night, and he saw a point-blank dunk attempt reverberate off the rim and all the way back out to the three-point arc.

Then he saw a three-point shot bounce off the back of the rim, hit the shot clock…and then come to a rest on top of the backboard. Given the pupil-dilating struggles of both Ohio State and Illinois, it was as if the exasperated orange sphere plopped down and harrumphed I’m taking myself and going home.

But here, most critically, is what Matta also saw: Just enough production to end the rolling nightmare of a 19-day stretch without a single win. Ohio State yanked itself out of abject misery with a 62-55 victory over Illinois, powered by 54.2 percent second-half shooting that included five three-pointers.

"Even though we tried our best to put the losing streak behind us, this game was not about that," Ohio State guard Aaron Craft said. "It was about coming out and finding a way to be better than Illinois. That was our only goal coming into this game, to get better. We were able to do that.”

The win was necessary. It wasn’t convincing. But the former, at the moment, was more important than the latter. Penn State visits Columbus, Ohio, next before the Buckeyes have back-to-back road games against Wisconsin and Iowa. Confidence can go a long way, no matter how specious the results it is built upon. If the Buckeyes can thoroughly dispatch a middling Nittany Lions squad and convince themselves that all is well, nothing to see here, maybe that can carry them to a split of two daunting road games. And will be good enough, all things considered.

But then this was a one-possession game late against an Illinois team that now has lost five in a row, that received a zero-point, 0-for-8 shooting night from leading scorer Rayvonte Rice and just nine points from second-leading scorer Tracy Abrams. Rice was averaging 17.4 points per game entering Thursday and never had scored fewer than six points in a game. Duly credit the Buckeyes’ defense that didn’t look as disjointed as Matta confirmed it had been, with 10 steals among the 15 turnovers it forced. Such odorous play from a visiting team, in theory, should lead to the home team reducing them to atoms.

Instead, Ohio State wound up looking just a little better than it had. It shot 40.6 percent during the four-game losing streak; it managed 41.7 percent efficiency Thursday. The defense, particularly from the perimeter crew of Craft, Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Shannon Scott, was improved. This was an incremental step. A vital one, but an incremental one. If you were looking for the faintest proof of life from Ohio State, you got it Thursday. If you were looking for something more, you’ll continue to wait and see.

Florida 68, Alabama 62. The Gators now have won 10 in a row, and really, every game is mere preamble to a trip to Rupp Arena on Feb. 15. In some very understandable ways, it looked like it Thursday. A fast start and a couple double-digit leads devolved into at least a little bit of uneasiness at the end, primarily due to 37.7 percent shooting overall and a so-so 12-of-18 showing at the free-throw line. But 10 three-pointers – five from guard Michael Frazier II – kept the Crimson Tide at bay. Six more games, four at home, until that visit to Kentucky.

St. John’s 77, Seton Hall 76. Sir’Dominic Pointer poked the ball away from Seton Hall’s Fuquan Edwin near mid-court as time wound down and the Red Storm posted their first Big East win of the year. It was another staunch-the-bleeding moment and probably said less about the direction of Steve Lavin’s crew than it did about the budding optimism from the Pirates. They had gotten some key pieces back and had posted a comeback win at Georgetown last weekend…and instead of building on that, it was a fourth loss in five games. Only upside: imminent, back-to-back home games against DePaul and Butler. St. John’s had been close before, finally got rewarded, and now faces consecutive road games at Butler and Creighton to challenge any momentum.

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