CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- E.J. Liddell couldn’t wait to come back home and torture the Illinois basketball program.
For the first time since spurning his home state school for a Big Ten Conference rival, the two-time Illinois Mr. Basketball selection finally returned to his home state in a Ohio State jersey to drop a game-high 26 points on the Illini in a 87-81 victory for the No. 24 Buckeyes.
In a lackluster effort for about 30 minutes of play, Illinois (9-5, 5-3) suffered its second straight home loss at State Farm Center in Champaign and have played about two acceptable halves of basketball (second half at Northwestern and second half today) in its last three contests.
Liddell, who was named the metro area high school player of the decade by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2019 was unstoppable either in pick-and-roll action or with his jump shot. The Belleville native knocked down 10 of 16 from the field and hit four three-point shots Saturday as the 6-foot-7 forward came into this contest 3 of 18 from beyond the arc but frustrated Illinois’ 7-foot, 290-pound center Kofi Cockburn for most of the afternoon.
“He’s a good player, a really good player,” Illinois head coach Brad Underwood said about Liddell. “You don’t put your hand down against a really good player and don’t challenge him and he’s going to bust your tail. E.J. was phenomenal today.”
Illinois got down by as many as 18 points in the first half where after a nearly week-long layoff they simply looked lethargic, uninterested and confused on the defensive end of the floor. Ohio State, which made only 32.8 percent of its three-point shots coming into this game, connected on 11 of 21 and seven of them in the first 20 minutes of action.
“We have to quit riding the emotional roller coaster that is this team right now. It's frustrating and I wish I had the answer,” Underwood said. “We're going to have some really tough meetings. It's time to put a stop to the don'ts."
Ayo Dosunmu, the preseason All-America selection, struggled to find any rhythm offensively and couldn’t push the tempo for transition opportunities with just two defensive rebounds. The junior guard finished with 22 points but 18 of them came in the second half of action.
Adam Miller, who finished with 14 points, cited the lack of consistency between two halves of play and a lack of defensive intensity as a reason.
“I feel like there’s just one more level of intensity we can reach,” Miller said. “If we lock in a little bit more, we’ll be fine. That first punch, you gotta take it quicker or withstand it a little longer...it’s just that last step of what a championship team is supposed to look like.”
Cockburn, who was the 2020 Big Ten Conference Freshman of the Year selection, seemed to have his frustrations boil over as he was 1 of 5 from the foul line and struggled to guard Liddell the entire afternoon. Cockburn finished with his NCAA-leading tenth double-double (15 points and 11 rebounds) on the year but was forced to be subbed out after rough segments on both ends of the floor.
Illinois is slated to next take the floor Tuesday night against Penn State in the hopes of ending the Illini’s first two-game losing streak in the 2020-21 season.