Matt Sylvester Ruins Illinois’ Perfect Season

On this day 14 years ago, Ohio State ruined Illinois’s bid at an undefeated season in the final game of the regular season, erasing a 12-point second-half deficit to get it done. The top-ranked Illini entered the game 29-0 and hadn’t dropped a regular season game since Jan. 24, 2004, more than 13 months before that streak ended in Columbus.

Junior forward Matt Sylvester came off the bench to score a game-high, and career-high, 25 points, none bigger than his three-pointer with 5.1 seconds to play that would ultimately serve as the game’s decisive shot.

Sylvester admitted years later his team went into the game expecting to lose.

“We literally didn’t even think we had a chance in that game, which is bad to say as players,” he told Big Ten Network in 2012.

After getting one of many crucial stops late in the game, Ohio State called timeout with 12.1 seconds to go down 64-62. In his first season in Columbus, Thad Matta called his team together.

“Thad comes storming into the huddle, and he says, ‘We’re going for the win.’ We went nuts,” Sylvester explained to BTN. “Thad had to say, “hey fellas, we haven’t even drawn the play up, let’s take it easy here.’”

The team came out of the timeout prepared. The ball was inbounded to senior guard Brandon Fuss-Cheatham, who took a few dribbles toward the middle of the court. Senior guard Tony Stockman ran around screens from junior forward Terence Dials and Sylvester, showing as if he were the intended shooter, bringing his defender with him. But Stockman was merely a decoy, distracting Illinois enough for Sylvester to pop up behind the arc. Dials set the down screen, leaving Sylvester alone on the wing.

“At this point, I couldn’t believe I was this open,” Sylvester told BTN.

With 5.1 seconds remaining, Sylvester’s shot found the bottom of the net, and he went streaking down the other end of the court with his index finger in the air with the Schottenstein Center erupting around him.

Fun Facts:

Schottenstein Center: Opened in 1998, 19,200 fans packed “The Schott” to witness Ohio State topple the mighty Illini.

Matt Sylvester: After playing for Ohio State from 2001-06, Sylvester played professionally in Europe and spent two years working in the financial services industry before entering the coaching world.

2004-05 Ohio State Buckeyes: Self-imposed sanctions stemming from transgressions committed under previous head coach Jim O’Brien kept the Buckeyes out of the postseason. The team finished 20-12 (8-8), good for sixth in the conference, and advanced to the second round of the 2005 Big Ten Tournament, defeating Penn State in its first game and falling to Wisconsin in its second.

2004-05 Illinois Fighting Illini: While this loss ended a chance at an undefeated season, Illinois still racked up accomplishments: a Big Ten regular season championship, a Big Ten Tournament title, a National Coach of the Year recognition for head coach Bruce Weber and a sweep of conference awards and First Team All-American nod for junior guard Dee Brown. Senior guard Luther Head and junior guard Deron Williams also earned Second Team All-American distinctions. The Fighting Illini wouldn’t lose again until falling 75-70 in the national championship game to North Carolina, finishing the season at 37-2.

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