Without suspended Pruitt, Illinois falls to Ohio State
With senior center Shaun Pruitt serving an indefinite suspension, Illinois had more than enough heart but came up short in a 64-58 loss to Ohio State in a Big Ten Conference basketball game at Value City Arena on Tuesday.
Illinois coach Bruce Weber suspended Pruitt indefinitely for an undisclosed team matter, and it appeared the Illini were headed for a long night. Illinois provided few hints in the first half that it could pull out a win, falling behind by 10 points while shooting 28.1 percent.
But the Illini staged a furious comeback in the second half, rallying from a 15-point deficit to 61-58 with 33.4 seconds remaining. Although the rally made it close, the Illini slipped further below the .500 mark.
Illinois senior forward Brian Randle's basket cut the deficit to three points before Ohio State snuffed the charge. Buckeyes guard David Lighty grabbed a rebound after a second missed Buckeyes free throw on the ensuing possession, and he converted it into two free throws.
When Illini reserve forward Rodney Alexander couldn't hit a 3-pointer on Illinois' next possession, the rally came up short.
Illinois fell to 9-11 overall and 1-6 in the Big Ten. Alexander led the Illini with 20 points, while Randle had 13 and guard Trent Meacham had 12.
Otherwise, the signs weren't good for Illinois.
Pruitt didn't dress and sat the bench in team sweats. His status for the game against Northwestern on Sunday (7 p.m., Big Ten Network) will be determined upon Pruitt's response to the discipline. He didn't start for the first time since the Illini played North Carolina in the NCAA title game in 2005.
While there was no legal, academic or injury issue concerning the benching, team spokesman Kent Brown said, no other detail was given before the game. But speculation centered on Pruitt's attitude.
The disciplinary move snapped a streak of 87 consecutive starts by Pruitt, the team leader in scoring (12.9 points per game) and rebounding (7.9). Over his last three games, Pruitt averaged 16 points and eight rebounds.
It wasn't known if Pruitt's discipline was a result of anything in the locker room after a loss at Purdue on Saturday, when Weber could be heard shouting behind the closed door.
The season got off to a slow start for Pruitt, who didn't play until the second half of the second exhibition game. Weber said at the time that he wanted to play the underclassmen to get a better read on redshirt decisions, but it seemed odd that a returning third-team all-Big Ten pick didn't need more playing time before the start of the season.
Pruitt declared for the NBA draft before returning for his senior season. Pruitt showed no outward signs of developing into a senior leader, something these Illini desperately needed.
Illini freshman center Mike Tisdale started for the first time in his college career.
Ohio State (13-6, 4-2) ended a three-game losing streak.
The Illini stayed within striking distance for much of the first half before the Buckeyes pulled away for a 33-23 halftime lead. Without Pruitt -- ranked fourth in the Big Ten with 53.9 percent shooting -- the Illini were 9-for-32 in the opening half.
Randle was 1-for-11 in the first half, when Alexander had 10 points and guard Trent Meacham scored nine.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.