By Shannon Ryan, Chicago Tribune reporter
9:05 PM CDT, March 10, 2013
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Leave it to Illinois coach John Groce to find the silver lining in back-to-back road losses to end the regular season.
Falling 68-55 Sunday at Ohio State on the heels of a loss at Iowa is not exactly a formula for March momentum.
But asked if he thought his team was in tournament shape heading into the Big Ten tournament, starting Thursday at the United Center, Groce said, "Today I do for sure. I thought our toughness was really, really good. … I thought our leadership was good today. We're going to stay poised."
The Illini fell to the No. 8 seed for conference tournament, which they will tip off with at 11 a.m. against No. 9 Minnesota. They will face the Gophers for a third time this season after splitting the season series.
"We definitely have to come out tough and execute our game plan to the fullest," point guard Tracy Abrams said. "We beat them at home so they'll probably come out with an edge. We have to be ready."
The Buckeyes (23-7, 13-5) closed out senior day by earning the No. 2 seed for the conference tournament.
The Illini were without reserve Joe Bertrand, who suffered a shoulder injury in practice. Groce said he hopes Bertrand will be ready for Thursday's game. Bertrand was in uniform but did not participate in warm-ups.
Bertrand's absence forced Groce to give more minutes to Devin Langford and Myke Henry off the bench. Langford, who averages only four minutes and less than a point a game, finished scoreless with three rebounds in 13 minutes. Henry finished with seven points and eight rebounds in 24 minutes but missed several scoring opportunities off six offensive rebounds.
"I was really pleased with both of them," Groce said.
Brandon Paul led the Illini (21-11, 8-10) with 21 points, while D.J. Richardson added 10.
Illinois led by four points midway through the first half, but the Buckeyes found their stride before halftime in front of a sellout crowd at Value City Arena.
The Buckeyes closed the half with a 12-2 run. Even as Illinois pulled within three possessions late in the game, they never made a run to take over.
"It just felt like a fight," Abrams said. "Things just weren't going our way."
The Illini shot only 35.2 percent, following a dreadful 28.6 percent shooting night at Iowa on Tuesday.
But they were more critical of their defense that allowed the Buckeyes to connect on 46.9 percent of their shots, including a 7-of-13 effort from DeShaun Thomas for 19 points.
"We're in a good spot," Paul said. "We just have to execute down the stretch. Defensively, we didn't stay poised like we have in the end and that hurt us."
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