After a doozy of an opening night, Ohio State (2-0) welcomed the Niagara Purple Eagles (0-2) to the Schottenstein Center on Friday night, led by a very familiar face. Third-year head coach Greg Paulus was an Ohio State assistant under Thad Matta from 2011-2017, and made his first trip back to Columbus since the change in regime from Matta to Holtmann.
His Purple Eagles are ranked No. 233 in the country according to Ken Pomeroy, but gave Xavier — who most people consider to be a safe NCAA Tournament team — a battle on Tuesday night. The Musketeers prevailed 63-60, but Niagara kept the deficit in the single digits for most of the night. Paulus’ team increased their winning percentage from .375 (12-20) two seasons ago to .450 (9-11) last season, so they’re certainly a program on the come up that relishes opportunities against the big dogs.
The Buckeyes, on the other hand, nearly lost their season opener to Akron on the same night, but were saved by a buzzer-beating layup from Zed Key in the final seconds, ensuring Ohio State would not start the season 0-1. OSU struggled with E.J. Liddell off the floor, which partially can be attributed to some key players simply not being healthy.
Chris Holtmann and the Buckeyes got their big missing piece back tonight, however, as Kyle Young made his season debut. He was diagnosed with a “vestibular dysfunction” last month, and missed both the Indianapolis exhibition and the Akron game while he recovered.
Both Young and the still-recovering Justice Sueing came off the bench, while the starting lineup stayed consistent from Tuesday night save for one switch. Jamari Wheeler, Justin Ahrens, E.J. Liddell, and Zed Key were announced, as well as freshman guard Malaki Branham, who made the key pass that led to Ohio State’s victory versus Akron.
Niagara came out the aggressor, jumping out to an early lead behind some explosive scoring from senior guard Marcus Hammond. Hammond — Niagara’s second-leading scorer a season ago — hit Ohio State with a flurry of moves on the perimeter and near the elbow which no Buckeye could defend. He didn’t keep up that pace all night, but he set the tone early for the Purple Eagles.
Liddell was equally as impressive, scoring 18 points on 6-of-9 shooting in the first stanza. Both teams were scoring with ease, and it became obvious early on that the team whose defense tightened up the screws just a little bit was going to walk away the winner. The Buckeyes led by just a single point at halftime, 42-41.
All part of the Ohio State basketball experience.
Unlike in the Akron game, Ohio State began to separate themselves a bit during the second stanza of this one. Following a Justin Ahrens’ triple with 14:40 left in the game, OSU’s lead was pushed to double digits, 56-46. Niagara wouldn’t let Ohio State run away with it, but unlike Tuesday night, the Buckeyes were able to keep the Purple Eagles at least at arm’s length for most of the second half.
E.J. Liddell "No."— Ohio State Hoops (@OhioStateHoops) November 13, 2021
Justin Ahrens "Yes!"
OSU 58 | NU 49 live on B1G+ pic.twitter.com/35d5KmzWvC
After Ohio State extended their lead to as much as a dozen, Niagara put together one last run, made up mostly of deep three-pointers (they finished the game shooting north of 50% from beyond the arc). With a narrow seven-point lead, Liddell drove to the basket, spun and was fouled. He then connected the free throw, giving Ohio State a double-digit lead yet again.
The Buckeyes would not look back, winning 84-74. Liddell led all scorers with 29 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 blocks. Hammond led Niagara with 22 points.
What were the key moments that helped Ohio State move to 2-0 on the season? Here are the moments that mattered:
The Marcus Hammond show
After he scored 25 points in Niagara’s close loss to Xavier earlier this week, Ohio State knew exactly what they were up against in 6-foot-3 senior guard Marcus Hammond. But target on his back be damned, Hammond came out and absolutely lit up early for the Purple Eagles, scoring 11 points in the first five minutes of game play, giving his squad an early 14-8 lead with 15:38 to go in the first half. He did it on six shots and a flurry of different moves, sometimes hoisting from deep while also hitting a few sharp mid-range jumpers
Welcome back, Kyle Young!
After missing all of Ohio State’s live action to this point, Young checked in to tonight’s game at the 14:31 mark and made an immediate impact, catching a Liddell lob above the basket and slamming it down with both hands, while also being fouled. He hit the free throw and completed the three-point play, cutting Niagara’s lead down to 14-13.
E.J. Liddell quietly dominant
Ball movement, it's a beautiful thing!— Ohio State Hoops (@OhioStateHoops) November 13, 2021
OSU 34 | NU 30 with 7:41 to go
Tune in now to B1G+ pic.twitter.com/xU4aImXAjS
It kind of snuck up on me how dominant Liddell was in the first half of this game. He scored 18 over the first 20 minutes on 6-of-9 shooting, but he picked his spots nicely and didn’t force anything. With Ohio State struggling to create separation, it felt like Liddell could have shot more, truthfully. It’s rare that a player takes nine shots in one half and it seems like he’s being passive, but Liddell really was scoring with such ease that that’s what it felt like.
Sueing offensive foul turns the tide
With the game tied at 34-34 and 6:27 remaining in the first half, Sueing drove to the right block and appeared to have absorbed some contact from a Niagara defender. He pulled up and shot through it, and missed. A whistle was blown, and the crowd assumed that meant Sueing would head to the free throw line. Instead, an offensive foul was called on Sueing, and Niagara retained possession. Hammond immediately scored at the other end, giving the Purple Eagles a 36-34 lead — a four-point swing.
Buckeye D breaks down at the buzzer
After Justice Sueing’s two free throws with 8.1 seconds remaining in the first half put Ohio State up three points, Niagara drove the length of the floor and dropped in a teardrop layup at the buzzer, cutting the lead back to just one point. As it was for much of the first half, Holtmann appeared less than pleased with his team’s defense over the first 20 minutes. Ohio State led 42-41 at halftime.
Turning defense to offense
At the 15:46 mark of the second half, Key sent Sam Iorio’s floater packing and Wheeler grabbed the ball and sprinted to the other end, beating Niagara’s entire team down the floor essentially. With both Ahrens and Branham to his right and only one defender, Wheeler passed to Ahrens first, who then swung it to Branham in the corner, who promptly cashed in his second bucket of the game. That gave Ohio State its biggest lead of the night (at the time), 53-46.
Liddell can’t convert at the stripe
After the Akron game, Liddell joked that “His favorite big man is Shaq for a reason” following a game where he missed four free throws. Despite his great game tonight, Liddell had a stretch where he missed four consecutive free throws in the second half, preventing Ohio State from really burying the Purple Eagles. Had he made his free throws at the 8:31 mark, Ohio State’s lead could have been as many as nine. Instead, it stuck at seven, 64-57.
After the Indianapolis scrimmage, Holtmann said that he wished his new point guard, Jamari Wheeler, would be a little more aggressive on the offensive end rather than always looking to get others involved.
Tonight, he did just that.
With 7:32 remaining and Ohio State leading 64-58, Wheeler faked a pass to his left and then shot it himself, canning a three-pointer from the top of the key. On the very next possession following a Niagara miss, Wheeler again shot it with confidence — from the same spot — and nailed it, pushing the lead back out to 12 points, 70-58. That dozen-point buffer represented Ohio State’s largest of the night, and they would not look back.
It’ll be a quick turnaround for the Buckeyes (2-0), as they’ll get two days off before welcoming Bowling Green (0-1) to the Schottenstein Center on Monday evening. The Falcons lost their season opener Tuesday on the road at Western Carolina, 79-71 in overtime. They were picked to finish sixth in the MAC this season, are the No. 149 in the country according to KenPom, and are led by seventh-year head coach Michael Huger, who has a 102-87 record at BGSU. Ohio State’s matchup with Bowling Green tips off at 6:30 p.m. ET and will be broadcast on Big Ten Network.