Ohio State (1-0) needed a last-second layup from sophomore center Zed Key to seal a 67-66 win over Akron (0-1) in the Buckeyes’ season opener in Columbus Tuesday night.
Ohio State’s final possession began out of a timeout with six seconds remaining. The inbounds pass went to true freshman Malaki Branham at the top of the key who then found a retreating Key in the paint for the game-winner. The assist was Branham’s third on the night, which tied for the team high.
The Buckeyes led 35-21 with 2:19 remaining in the first half but then Akron closed the half on a 7-1 run and then opened the second half by scoring the first eight points of the half to tie the game at 36-36 with 18:21 to play. From that point on the game was never separated by more than five points. Both teams had leads of three points in the game’s final three minutes.
Trailing 65-62 with under 10 seconds to play, Akron’s Ali Ali hit a three-pointer from the left wing and was also fouled by OSU forward EJ Liddell, which was Liddell’s fifth foul. Ali hit the free throw to give Akron the 66-65 lead before Ohio State got the ball to midcourt and called a timeout to set up the Branham-to-Key game winner.
Liddell led all players with 25 points and 11 rebounds. He was 10-of-19 from the field in 30 minutes of play. Key scored 14 on the night, shooting 7-of-11 from the field.
Branham played a surprising 24 minutes in this game, including 14 in the second half. He scored 7 points on 3-of-9 shooting but was instrumental down the stretch in creating some needed offense for the Buckeyes. Branham also grabbed six rebounds and had a block and a steal. He also led the team in +/- with a +10.
EJ Liddell Showing Complete Game
EJ Liddell returned to school in part to round out his entire game a bit more. The NBA knows he can score in the paint — and they told head coach Chris Holtmann to make sure that he doesn’t lose that ability this year, but he also wanted to show better defense, better ball handling, increased athleticism, and anything else that would put him in better favor. In just the first eight minutes of this game Liddell had a couple of strips and a blocked shot on defense. He was busy rebounding the ball and was also finding open shooters on the offensive end. Liddell was comfortable bringing the ball up the court as well. He also had a couple of dunks in the first half to showoff his athleticism. Then he opened the second half with a another blocked shot, a drive for a layup, and a score on a post move. Through it all, he never really forced the action in trying to live up to the expectations of a preseason All-Big Ten player. And yet there was still plenty to improve, like not boxing out late and having a rebound taken away from him that led to a big three-pointer for Akron and gave the Zips a 1-point lead with four minutes to play. Liddell also could have done much better from the free throw line. He’s obviously Ohio State’s best player and he still had a very good night. There will be games this season, however, where OSU may need him to be damn near perfect.
Malaki Branham’s Contributions Go Beyond Scoring
Chris Holtmann said a week or two ago that Malaki Branham has a 6-foot-11 inch reach and he showed that off on a first half finger roll against Akron. Branham showed tremendous basketball awareness in moving without the ball and attacking the basket while not possessing the basketball. He also had some very nice passes into the post that weren’t easy but they looked easy for him. That’s another sign of a guy who just has a great feel for the game. He never looked out of control and he didn’t force anything. He also led the team in the first half with a plus/minus of +13 in his 10 minutes on the court. If there’s a critique at this point it’s that he could maybe stand to be more aggressive at times, though he certainly turned it up a notch or three in the second half. Branham didn’t look like a freshman in this game and Holtmann put him in a huge situation at the end of the game knowing that a precision pass was going to need to be made.
Where Is The Backcourt Scoring Going To Come From This Year?
The Ohio State starting guard trio of Jamari Wheeler, Meechie Johnson, and Justin Ahrens produced just nine total points and had just four assists. Wheeler scored two points on a pair of free throws and had just one assist. He has never been an outside shooter and never really much of a scorer. Johnson looked out of sorts for much of this game. He also went scoreless from the field, but did hit all four of his free throws. He pulled down five rebounds and picked up two steals but he had some control issues in the first half. He showed last year that he could hit shots from deep so that will eventually happen again, but how much can the Buckeyes rely on a freshman guard to score when it just may or may not happen? Certainly things will get better, but how quickly? Ahrens scored 7 points thanks to 2-of-3 shooting from 3-point territory. And while Ahrens’ shooting will always come in handy, it generally has to come from somebody setting him up. Can Branham supplement these numbers? If this game was any indication, he’s gonna have to.
It Will Take Justice Sueing Some Time
Forward Justice Sueing missed the exhibition game last week with a lower leg injury. It’s something that has been bothering him for a while now and Chris Holtmann has warned people not to expect Sueing to be at his best early on. That was definitely the case Tuesday night as Sueing tried to play through the rust. He played 15 minutes and scored two points. He was 1-of-7 from the field and 0-2 from three-point range. He wasn’t particularly close from the field but that should improve throughout this month as he gets his legs and shooting stroke back under him.
The Box Score
EJ Liddell header photo courtesy of the Ohio State Dept. of Athletics