Playing with an ankle she injured just two days ago, Illinois junior Susan Blauser entered the game for the first time in the second half and helped the Illini hold on for a 79-73 win over Ohio State at the Assembly Hall on Sunday.
The Illini opened the game without their leading scorer and put forth an inspired effort led by junior Tauja Catchings. The UI forward scored 10 of Illinois' first 15 points to help the hosts build a 15-12 lead. The Buckeyes stayed close, cutting the deficit to three points at 20-17 with 7:53 on the clock. Illinois started to pound the ball down low, using their distinct height advantage to go on a 9-0 run, including five points from 6-3 Alicia Sheeler, to take their largest lead of the game at 29-17. The Buckeyes slowly crept back into the game and trailed only 38-30 at the half.
Illinois still led by six points early in the second half when Catchings picked up her fourth foul and was forced to leave the game. Her replacement was Susan Blauser, who was not expected to play today after injuring her ankle on Friday night against Northwestern. Blauser began to make a difference with her first play of the game, as the Illini junior set a big screen to free Allison Curtin for a three-pointer to give Illinois a 49-40 lead. Blauser scored six points and the Illini built a 65-55 lead on a Kylie Martin drive with 6:35 on the clock.
The Buckeyes would not fold, going on an 11-0 run to take a 66-65 lead with 3:30 left in the game. Illinois responded, hitting 4-6 free throws to reclaim the lead before a Tomeka Brown three-pointer tied the game at 69-69. The crucial play of the game came just moments later, as the two teams fought for a rebound on the Illinois end and the officials called a foul on No. 12. The Illini headed to the other end of the court, thinking it was Catchings' fifth foul of the game. Instead, the foul was on Indiana's No. 12, Jamie Lewis, and Catchings hit both free throws to reclaim a 71-69 advantage. Ohio State had a chance to forge another tie, but Michaela Mous missed both free throws and Alicia Sheeler scored on the other end to make it 73-69 with less than a minute left. Illinois hit four key free throws down the stretch to hold on for the 79-73 win.
Both teams shot under 50 percent in a foul-filled contest that included 53 personal fouls and 64 free throw attempts. The Illini hit 24-35 from the line while Ohio State made 18-29. Illinois dominated the boards, outrebounding the Buckeyes 43-32.
Blauser scored only six points in the second half, but played all 17 minutes after entering the game as her emotion and leadership was crucial to the win. Four Illini hit double figures, led by Catchings with 19 points and eight rebounds, including six on the offensive glass. Curtin added 16 points, Melissa Parker hit two treys to tally 15 points and Sheeler added 10 points, nine rebounds and four blocks. Ohio State was led by Moua's 19 points.
Illinois plays its next three games on the road before finishing the regular season with Iowa on home on Feb. 21. The Illini open their road trip at Michigan on Friday, Feb. 12.