CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — E.J. Liddell was maybe the biggest recruit to get away from Illinois coach Brad Underwood. And the Belleville (Ill.) West product proved it again on Saturday.

A year after scoring a season-high 17 points in a win over Illinois, the two-time Illinois Mr. Basketball scored a career-high 26 points and added a team-high seven rebounds to lead No. 21 Ohio State to an 87-81 win at No. 14 Illinois.

Ohio State, which has won three straight games, led for 38 minutes. After a four-game win streak, the Illini (9-5, 5-3 Big Ten) have lost back-to-back games for the first time this season.

Liddell, a career 18.2 percent three-point shooter, made a career-high four 3-pointers, and Ohio State (11-3, 5-3 Big Ten) shot 11 of 21 from beyond the arc, including 7 of 11 during the first half.

Illinois trimmed a 15-point halftime deficit to two with 15.5 seconds left but, unlike comeback wins at Penn State and Northwestern, Illinois never was able to fully overcome the massive early deficit against the Buckeyes.

Justin Ahrens made three second-half 3-pointers and finished with 11 points, while Seth Towns (2-3 from three) and Duane Washington each added 11 points.

Ayo Dosunmu led Illinois with 22 points, 18 of which came in the second half. Kofi Cockburn (15 points, 11 rebounds) had his NCAA-leading 10th double-double of the season but had three turnovers. Freshman guard Adam Miller added 14 points, making 3 of 8 from three.

Ohio State got off to a 10-2 lead and then used a 22-4 run, which included four made threes — including two from Liddell on Kofi Cockburn — to take a commanding 37-19 lead and eventually a 43-28 halftime lead.

But like it has many times this season, Illinois found a second-half spark and used an 18-6 run to cut the deficit to two possessions, 52-46, with 12:58 remaining. But Ohio State quickly expanded its lead back to double digits after a 6-0 run.

Illinois used a 9-1 run to cut the deficit to four with 48.7 seconds left and then Adam Miller made a three with 15 seconds remaining to cut it to two. But Ohio State sank four straight free throws in the final seconds to close out the win.

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What it means: The Illini are now facing a midseason soul-searching moment. The Illini will fall in the rankings, possibly out of many voters’ polls, after back-to-back losses as favorites and are facing a hugeearly hole in the Big Ten title race. Simply, this isn’t as good of a team as everyone, including the Illini, thought right now. and they have to find answers as to why. A week off certainly didn’t do them much good. The Illini again lacked energy and focus in the first half, an issue Brad Underwood knows about but one for which he has no solution so far. The Illini were able to summon comebacks from similar poor starts at Pen State and Northwestern, but those are two of the least talented teams in the Big Ten. Underwood has had to coach energy and intensity from the sidelines far too often this season for a team that has so many veterans and a pair of potential First Team All-Big Ten players.

Star of the game: Liddell is a tough matchup for anyone, but the skilled, tough, athletic 6-foot-7, 240-pound forward was a really tough matchup for Cockburn, the Illini’s 7-foot, 285-pound center. Liddell, who had made 3 of 18 from three this season, successfully stretched Cockburn defensively and made the big man pay, an issue Cockburn faces with his NBA evaluation.

Stat of the game: Illinois, the No. 1 rebounding team in the Big Ten, lost the first-half rebound battle 20 to 11 to Ohio State, which didn’t play a player taller than 6-foot-8. Illinois outrebounded Ohio State 18 to 8 in the second half.

OSU also outscored Illinois 22-6 on the fastbreak, a category Illinois tends to win most games.

Don’t overlook: Illinois missed a golden opportunity to cut into Ohio State’s lead after Duane Washington committed a flagrant foul on a shot to Kofi Cockburn’s head. But Cockburn missed the two flagrant foul free throws and Cockburn was then called for an offensive foul. Justin Ahrens then hit a three on the ensuing OSU possession. Illinois could’ve cut the lead to two or even one possessions. Instead, Ohio State quickly ballooned its lead to double digits again.

What’s next: Illinois hosts Penn State 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (BTN). The game was moved up a day to help accommodate a schedule crunch for the Nittany Lions (3-4, 0-3 Big Ten), who haven’t played since Dec. 30 due to positive COVID-19 tests within the program. Penn State will play four games in seven days, starting with a road game at Purdue on Sunday. Illinois on Dec. 23 defeated the Nittany Lions 98-81 despite going down 19-4 to start the game. Penn State has only played one game since then, an 87-85 overtime loss at Indiana. Iziah Brockington leads four PSU players with 15.1 points per game, followed by Myreon Jones (14.3 points), Sam Sessoms (12.6 points) and Seth Lundy (12.6 points).