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Illinois eighth seed in Big Ten tournament after loss to Ohio State

Ohio State's Deshaun Thomas right drives basket against Illinois' NnannEgwu during second half an NCAA college basketball game Sunday March

Ohio State's Deshaun Thomas, right, drives to the basket against Illinois' Nnanna Egwu during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, March 10, 2013, in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio State defeated Illinois 68-55. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

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Updated: March 10, 2013 10:16PM

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The forecast for Illinois was pretty cloudy Sunday against No. 14 Ohio State, even cloudier than it had been Tuesday at Iowa. That was espe-
cially true when junior guard
Joseph Bertrand sat out with a shoulder injury.

At least the Illini didn’t play in a fog. After Illinois was beaten by the Buckeyes 68-55, coach John Groce accentuated the positive, reminding people Iowa and Ohio State both were 16-2 at home this season.

‘‘I was really proud of our guys for their toughness,’’ Groce said. ‘‘I’m disappointed we came up short, but sometimes people equate how you’re playing with whether you win or lose. I thought we had good energy, we were together and we were tough.’’

The Illini (21-11, 8-10) head into the Big Ten tournament, where they will be the No. 8 seed, on a two-game skid. But they also will tee it up Thursday at the United Center against No. 9 seed Minnesota feeling good about where they are.

‘‘We’ve proven we can play with any team in the nation,’’ said guard Brandon Paul, who led all scorers with 21 points. ‘‘Iowa and Ohio State are good teams. We can’t let [those losses] affect us. We have another game coming up that’s
going to be played at a high level. We have to make sure we’re up for the challenge.’’

The Buckeyes (23-7, 13-5), who won their fifth consecutive game to earn the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten tournament, had more ways to play the game than Illinois.

Not only was Bertrand out with a shoulder injury suffered in practice, but big men Sam McLaurin and Nnanna Egwu, who combined for only two points and four
rebounds, missed long stretches with foul trouble.

‘‘[Bertrand] could have gone, maybe,’’ Groce said. ‘‘But I thought the right thing was to give him a chance to get healthy for the Big Ten tournament. We’re hoping he’ll be ready to go.’’

For all their troubles, the Illini led 22-21 with six minutes left in the first half. Then Ohio State scored nine consecutive points and led 33-24 at the half. Illinois never got closer than seven points in the second half.

‘‘The biggest segment was their 12-2 run at the end of the [first] half,’’ Groce said. ‘‘If you take that run out, we’re right there. We got it to three possessions in the second half, but we never could get it to two possessions. We kept hanging around and grinding and never quite got there.’’

With their NCAA credentials firmly established, the Illini can go to the Big Ten tournament intent on having fun and perhaps polishing its NCAA seed. With the conference regarded as the best in the
nation, the United Center is expected to be raucous.

‘‘The league is as deep as I’ve ever seen it,’’ Groce said. ‘‘Now you have a tournament with all those teams. Familiarity breeds contempt. Everybody knows what
everybody’s doing. Should be a heck of a tournament.’’

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