CHAMPAIGN — Where would one possibly begin to try to explain just how bad Illinois was at basketball Saturday night?
Let’s take a morbid stab at it, just for the sport of it.
How does a second-half scoring drought of 7:43 sound? And we’re talking about a desert march that lasted only a couple of minutes longer than the Illini’s other second-half drought, which spanned 5:42.
For those of you scoring at home, that’s about two-thirds of the last 20 minutes without denting the scoreboard. In a game that ended 48-39 in favor of No. 22 Ohio State, it felt more like forever. Times two.
“Our offense was anemic today,” coach John Groce said.
In case you’re still scoring, that’s 3-10 now in the Big Ten — otherwise known as last place — for the Illini. It’s also five consecutive home losses, the program’s first such streak in 40 years.
The last time Illinois lost more consecutive home basketball games was . . . well, you’ve just got to guess.
According to the school, it was a seven-game stretch that concluded all the way back in 1908. But enough about the Cubs.
This really was brutal. Only a late, meaningless semi-flurry made the final score look almost within the very broad range of “normal,” but this was abnormally bad even for an offense that has struggled severely for most of the season.
Before Tracy Abrams’ three-pointer with 4:25 left, the score was 42-29, and the Illini had scored all of six points in the half.
The Illini shot 28.3 percent from the field. The reserves — including fading seniors Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey — shot a combined 1-for-14.
There was no combination of players that gave Groce what he was looking for, although the team’s first-half performance was respectable. The offense stagnated, as usual, but the defense and rebounding were terrific, and the Illini actually led 23-20 at the break.
Led by bulldog guards Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott, who combined for eight steals, the Buckeyes (20-6, 7-6 Big Ten) absolutely smothered the physically overmatched Illini.
Groce said he could tell some of his players were discouraged. The Buckeyes certainly could, too.
“It’s tough,” said Craft, who led all scorers with 14 points. “Everyone who comes to college doesn’t expect to have a season like they’re having. They have a great coach, great players. They just have to keep their heads up.”
The Illini are 14-12 and seemingly bound to finish the season with a losing record. Around here, that sure doesn’t happen much.
This team seems to go long stretches every game without denting the scoreboard. In the Illini’s most unsightly offensive showing yet, they dented the rim, the backboard, possibly their own psyches and surely their fan base’s confidence.
As they shook hands after the game, OSU coach Thad Matta told Groce, his former assistant, to “stay the course.”
“No one’s going to work harder than him,” Matta said.
That’s good because the to-do list just keeps getting longer.