COLUMBUS, Ohio -- For a half, David Lighty was almost invisible.
Then he it was as if he was invincible, refusing to let Ohio State (No. 3 ESPN/USA Today, No. 2 AP) falter again.
Lighty scored 17 of his 21 points in the second half and William Buford had all 17 of his in the first to lead the Buckeyes to a big bounce-back win after two recent losses, beating Illinois 89-70 on Tuesday night.
"I've said since the beginning: I love him," Illini coach Bruce Weber said of Lighty, only the third-leading scorer for the Buckeyes. "I think he's the MVP. He probably won't get it because people aren't smart enough. But he's their heart and soul."
During one remarkable 3-minute span, Lighty scored all 13 of Ohio State's points (to just two for the Illini) and had three steals.
"They should put a statue in front of the Schottenstein Center of David Lighty, just what he's meant to this program, not only on the court," coach Thad Matta said, referring to Ohio State's home arena. "His performance there in the second half was high level. I looked out there [and] it was like he was everywhere."
The Illini scored 11 of the first 13 points of the second half to pull within 49-43 before Lighty took over.
He scored Ohio State's next 13 points to build the lead back to 62-45.
Just that quick, the Illini responded with an 8-0 run to narrow the gap to 62-53.
Lighty then fed substitute forward Deshaun Thomas, caught in a recent shooting slump, for a 3-pointer. Seconds later, Lighty missed a jumper and Thomas fought off a defender for the rebound and converted it into a three-point play for a 68-53 lead.
Between them, Lighty and Thomas accounted for all 19 Ohio State points over a span of 7½ minutes.
The lead never dipped below double figures again.
"I've been through the ups and downs of college basketball," said Lighty, a fifth-year senior who was just 2 for 9 from the field in Sunday's loss at Purdue. "People go through slumps. I just needed to work my way out of it. To keep shooting. My teammates have confidence in me and they get mad at me when I don't shoot the ball when I'm open. They trust in me and I trust in them."
Ohio State shot 53 percent from the field to end Illinois' string of 37 consecutive games holding an opponent under 50 percent. The last team to reach 50 percent was also Ohio State, which shot 53.1 against the Illini on Feb. 14, 2010.
The Buckeyes had just three turnovers -- they forced 16 turnovers, including getting nine steals.
"We knew we had to take care of the ball. That was pretty much the key to the last game," Buford said of the game at Purdue, where the Buckeyes had 18 turnovers.
Mike Davis scored 18 points, Mike Tisdale 14 and Jereme Richmond 11 for Illinois (17-11, 7-8), in dire need of more wins to make the NCAA tournament field. Demetri McCamey, the 12th-leading scorer in the Big Ten at 14.5 points a game, did not start for the Illini but finished with 15 points and six assists.
Asked what his team was missing this season, Weber said, "Lighty. If you have a Lighty, a heart and soul who comes every day and does what you need. We just don't have that toughness, that leadership -- that difference-maker."
The Buckeyes had lost at Wisconsin on Feb. 12, beat Michigan State at home last week and then dropped the game to the Boilermakers. With four games left and a one-game lead in the Big Ten, they knew they couldn't afford another slip.
"Yes, we've lost two. And as Coach told us, it's not the end of the world," Diebler said. "The one thing we've realized is we still have a one-game lead in the Big Ten. That's our first goal right now. We're trying to win a championship right now, that's how we approached this game."
Ohio State had only a token practice on Monday. The players were aware of what was at stake.
"Obviously, as a team we don't like to lose," Sullinger said. "Basically we wanted to just bounce back and start another win streak."