Ohio State freshman guard Meechie Johnson drained a three-pointer with 2.3 seconds remaining to give the Buckeyes (4-1) a 79-76 win over No. 21 Seton Hall (3-1) Monday night in the semifinals of the Fort Myers Tip Off. Junior forward EJ Liddell scored a team-high 28 points for the Buckeyes, including 10-of-10 from the free throw line. Pirates forward Jared Rhoden scored a game-high 29 points on 8-of-15 shooting. He was 2-for-2 from three-point range in the first half and 0-for-3 in the second half.
Ohio State trailed 24-19 midway through the first half before showing what they are truly capable by going on a 19-4 run over a six-minute span to take a 38-28 lead, capped by a Jimmy Sotos three-pointer. Seton Hall responded by closing the half on a 7-2 run. The Buckeyes immediately built back up to a 10-point lead to open the second half thanks to a three from senior guard Justin Ahrens and a dunk from Liddell. For the next 10 minutes, the OSU lead fluctuated between six and 11 points.
Seton Hall began to wake up a bit thanks to some cantankerousness from OSU point guard Jamari Wheeler towards Pirates point guard Bryce Aiken. Aiken was fouled by Wheeler on a free throw and converted a three-point play to make it a 63-59 game with 8:19 remaining. On the ensuing possession, Liddell missed a jumper and OSU head coach Chris Holtmann was immediately whistled for a technical foul for arguing that a foul should have been called on Liddell’s shot. Aiken made both free throws to cut the lead to 63-61.
The Buckeyes regained control and had a 72-65 lead with 3:48 to play when Seton Hall went on a 5-0 run, capped by an Aiken three-pointer. Aiken scored 16 points on the night. Leading 76-74 with the ball, a pass went through Meechie Johnson’s hands and ended up in a fast-break layup for Seton Hall guard Jamir Harris to tie the game at 76-76 with 14 seconds to play.
Rather than call a timeout, Holtmann chose to let the game play out with a play called in a previous timeout. That play called for Johnson to drive the lane, but instead he took an open three from the top of the key and it rattled in. Seton Hall’s prayer of a three on their final possession was not answered.
Johnson scored eight points on the night, including a pair of three pointers. Justin Ahrens added 17 points on 5-of-8 shooting from three-point range. Senior forward Kyle Young scored 12 points and pulled down a game-high eight rebounds.
Ohio State held Seton Hall to 38% shooting on 24-of-63 from three field. The Buckeyes, meanwhile, shot 23-of-48 (48%) from the field and 11-of-22 (50%) from three.
Stop Me If You’ve Already Heard This
I enjoy watching young, smart players become smart, old players. Malaki Branham is one of those smart young guys that will be able to make more of his growth than most because of his basketball IQ. He has good size, good athleticism, can drive, and yet hasn’t let any of that keep him from developing a mid-range game or the ability to pass the ball into the post. He only scored two points in this one in 18 minutes of play and got bested on a pump fake by Pirates veteran scorer Jared Rhoden for an and-one, but knew exactly what he did wrong. You can also tell he’s the kind of kid who will put in the work to improve the rest of his game because he understands how what he’s missing would help him. Branham goes through ups and downs in every game, and that’s perfectly fine. As Ryan Day likes to say about some of his football players, everything Holtmann and company invest in Branham, they’ll get back. And there will be considerable interest on that return.
Sotos More Than So So
Chris Holtmann came into this game wanting to get a good, long look at his guards, and based on the minutes we saw for Jimmy Sotos and even Cedric Russell, he accomplished what he wanted. While Russell’s five minutes were uneventful, Sotos’s 19 minutes were key. When Jamari Wheeler had been getting into it a bit with Bryce Aiken, it was Sotos who stayed in the game at the point and kept everybody calm. Even when Wheeler was back in the game, it was Sotos who provided some level of reassurance and security. He scored six points and dropped in a key three-pointer, but his presence was worth even more. Even though Meechie Johnson hit a big shot and will earn more minutes, tonight was proof that there is a need for Sotos on this team and he filled that need perfectly Monday night.
The Alpha Dog
EJ Liddell is going to be the best player on the court most of the nights for the Buckeyes this year, which is a ton of pressure to live with, but it doesn’t seem to bother him. He scored 28 points in this one on 8-of-17 shooting, and he shot the ball from everywhere. He’s full of post moves and can hit a step-back three, but his most valuable asset is his fearlessness. Liddell will measure in at 6-foot-6 at the NBA combine, but that didn’t stop him from backing down Seton Hall’s 7-foot-2 center Ike Obiagu and going right at him. It wasn’t always successful, but it worked when it needed to. If there is a shot that needs to be taken this season, EJ Liddell will be more than willing to take it. The Buckeyes have won two games this year already on baskets in the final seconds, and neither of them have been Liddell’s doing. And maybe that’s a pretty good sign for the makeup of this squad.
Be Careful Poking The Bear
I appreciate Jamari Wheeler’s attacking style of basketball, but that style can sometimes wake up a sleeping giant. Seton Hall had a similar game going against Michigan last week until they turned an 11-point deficit into a two-point win. And that’s not to say Seton Hall is a sleeping giant, but they seemed to be sleepwalking through the second half of this game until Wheeler and Bryce Aiken started going at each other. Wheeler woke Aiken up and the rest of the Seton Hall offense followed right along, but Weeler had no offense of his own to answer shot for shot. That’s not Wheeler’s game (6-of-11 from 3FG, 0-for-6 from 2FG this season), we know that. But if you’re going to poke the bear, don’t be surprised if you end up having to shoot it. Wheeler didn’t take a single shot in this game and finished with four fouls in 24 minutes.
The Box Score
[EJ Liddell header photo courtesy of the Ohio State Dept. of Athletics.]