COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - All Lenzelle Smith Jr. wanted was to see his teammates happy for a change.
They hadn’t been for the past 19 days.
LaQuinton Ross scored 18 points and Smith had 16 - and each added critical points down the stretch - to help No. 17 Ohio State end a four-game skid with a 62-55 win over Illinois on Thursday night.
“You want to see your team smile as much as possible,” said Smith, a senior. “I can tell you that prior to this game there were no smiles, there was no laughter. Guys were kind of in their shells. Now I feel like everybody’s out now and I’m looking forward to playing the next game with a lot of confidence.”
Aaron Craft added 11 points, six rebounds and five assists for the Buckeyes (16-4, 3-4 Big Ten), who had lost four in a row for the first time since 2007-08.
“This was a big win,” coach Thad Matta said. “We told our guys this was a one-game season just from the standpoint that we knew we had six days off afterward. To their credit they did a tremendous job of laying it all on the line.”
Over their win drought, the Buckeyes had wilted in the final 5 minutes, had shot poorly and hadn’t been able to stop opposing teams.
Against another team stuck in a four-game slide, they finally found some answers.
Illinois (13-7, 2-5) pulled to 41-40 on 3s by Jon Ekey and Joseph Bertrand and pulled even at 46 on Tracy Abrams’ slash through the lane. He missed the cap on a possible three-point play, however, and at the other end Shannon Scott fed Ross for a 3 from the left wing.
The teams traded missed chances until Smith stepped in front of a bad pass by Tracy Abrams and fed Scott for a left-handed layup with 3:50 remaining for a 51-46 advantage.
With the Buckeyes hanging on 52-50, Ross drove the lane against the Illinois zone and was fouled, banking in a shot and adding the accompanying free throw with 2:07 left.
“It was everybody being connected tonight,” Ross said of the difference for the Buckeyes. “We had a lot of togetherness. You saw guys jumping up and down. It was just a group effort. Everybody did what they had to. We pitched in.”
The Illini then turned it over on an offensive foul by Rice before Smith poured in a 3 from in front of the Ohio State bench for a 58-50 lead with 75 seconds remaining.
Illinois never threatened again.
“I thought Ross’ and-1 was huge. I thought Smith’s 3 was huge,” said Illini coach John Groce, a former Ohio State assistant. “Those were two big plays.”