The newly unranked Ohio State Buckeyes (4-1) came into Monday night’s game in the Fort Myers Tipoff against the No. 21 Seton Hall Pirates (3-1) with an energy, aggression, and chip on their shoulder that they didn’t seem to have in their 71-65 loss to in-state foe Xavier on Friday night. That focus and hustle helped them turn in their best performance of the young season and pull off a 79-76 win.
The two teams entered this mini, Thanksgiving-week tournament with very different energies. The Buckeyes had yet to play a complete game through four games, while the Pirates were fresh off of a 67-65 win over Michigan in Ann Arbor.
The first half of the contest was an exciting and entertaining back-and-forth 20 minutes of action, while the second period was far of a grind-it-out, foul-riddled affair, but the Buckeyes held on Meechie Johnson hits a dagger three-pointer with just 2.3 seconds remaining to give OSU the win.
While that shot — the biggest in Johnson’s young collegiate career — might be the one that gets remembered from the game, it was Ohio State’s veteran big man E.J. Liddell who exerted his will on both ends of the floor throughout the game.
Liddell led OSU in scoring with 28 points on the game off of 8-of-17 (47%) shooting; he added in 6 rebounds and 3 blocks. The Buckeyes’ energy led to an all-around impressive offensive effort; as a whole, the team went 23-48 (47.9%) from the floor on the game, while Justin Ahrens (17) and Kyle Young (12) joined Liddell in double figures.
Earlier on Monday, it was announced that Buckeye sophomore guard Eugene Brown III had not traveled to Florida with the team as he is dealing with a concussion, this led to more playing time for veteran transfer guards Jimmy Sotos and Cedric Russell, both of whom did not play against the Musketeers. Sotos made the most of his time, coming up with big plays on both sides of the floor for the Buckeyes.
Sotos value tonight cannot be overstated. Incredibly strong minutes— Bucketheads (@BucketheadsLGHL) November 23, 2021
Off to a Hot Start
Both teams made three of their first four attempts from the floor. The lone Buckeye miss came when 7-foot-2 Ike Obiagu blocked an E.J. Liddell layup attempt. At the first media timeout, 5:58 into the game, the two teams were a combined 11-for-17 (64.7%) from the floor leading to a scored knotted up at 14.
The Buckeyes were a very nice 6-of-9 in the early going, while the Pirates were 5-of-8. The major differences were that OSU drained both of their three-point attempts (one by Justin Ahrens and one by Liddell), while Seton Hall was only 1-for-3 from deep, and the Pirates were 3-of-4 from the free throw line, while the Buckeyes hadn’t yet made it to the stripe.
Everything Changes When the Lights Go Out
With just slightly over nine minutes remaining, the majority of the lights in the Suncoast Credit Union Arena went out with the Pirates leading 24-19.
It’s hard to tell from this video, but folks, the lights just went out in the arena. It happened during the national anthem as well, but I thought that was for effect… apparently not. pic.twitter.com/YqmDQEOXU5— Land-Grant Holy Land (@Landgrant33) November 22, 2021
However, from there, the Buckeyes went on an impressive run on both sides of the floor fueled by their junior big man. It started with Liddell hitting a turn-around jumper from the right elbow to cut the deficit to three. Then on the other end of the floor, Liddell and a cadre of other Buckeyes swarmed Obiagu forcing him to miss three straight shots. Then Liddell hit his second triple of the game to tie the contest.
After another Buckeye defensive stop, Kyle Young got his first two points on the day with a pair of free throws. Young continued the defensive clamp down preventing Tyrese Samuel from scoring in the paint, and then on the other end Liddell connected on a pair of free throws of his own.
Then, after a Pirate basket by Alexis Yetna, Ahrens intercepted a pass at the top of the key and turned it into a transition three. After Samuel went over Liddell’s back, Ahrens was fouled on another attempt from distance and made two of three.
From there, the two teams traded points before TikTok influencer Jimmy Sotos buried a three at the 2:57 mark. In the course of 5:53 of game time following the lights going out, the Buckeyes went on a 19-4 run to go from down five to up 10 at 38-28.
E.J. Was Not Here to Mess Around
After putting up 17 points in Friday’s loss to Xavier, Liddell seemed to come out with a vengeance against Seton Hall. In the first 20 minute of action, the junior forward 6-of-11 from the floor — including 2-of-4 from distance — to pace the Scarlet and Gray with 16 first-half points. The big man also added three rebounds and two blocked shots.
But it was more than just the numbers in the first half for Liddell, while I don’t think anyone has ever truly questioned his effort or intensity, it seemed like E.J. was playing with a little bit of extra fire on Monday night.
After a number of defensive stops, you could see Liddell either flex or pump his fist, and then following an early second half dunk, he looked to the bench and either did a very aggressive raising of the roof or mimed a shoulder press.
Perhaps after the first loss of the season, he came into this game with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, but Liddell was certainly ready for the battle against Seton Hall.
And the Plusses Have It
At halftime, Ohio State led 40-35, but there were two players that were the constant for their scoring streaks. Through the first period, Ahrens and Young led the Buckeyes with a +9 plus/minus. What’s interesting about that is that Ahrens did it in 11 minutes of action, while Young did it in just four.
On the other end, Aikens (+2) and Myles Cale (+5) were in the positives for Seton Hall in the first half.
Three is a Magic Number
In their loss to Xavier last week, Ohio State was 8-for-21 (38%) from distance, but against Seton Hall, the Buckeyes went 11-22 (50%). OSU had five players connect from deep, including Ahrens (5-for-8) and Liddell (2-for-4) hitting multiple threes.
Conversely, the Pirates ended the game significantly under their season average from behind the arc. Coming into the game, they were hitting 38.5% from deep, but on Monday night, they were just 55-232 for 21.7%.
The first half of the game was a fair smooth, up-and-down 20 minutes of action. Over the course of the first 20 minutes, the two teams were only whistled for a combined 12 fouls. However, after halftime, the tides turned for some reason, and the refs called 24 fouls in the second half; 13 on Ohio State and 11 on Seton Hall.
Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann had not been happy with the officiating for most of the game (is any coach ever happy with any officiating?), but then after a series of consecutive, questionable calls that all went against the Buckeyes, Holtmann was on the receiving end of a technical foul call with 7:53 left in regulation and his team leading just 63-59. After Aiken hit both free throws, the lead was down to two.
Chris Holtmann has not been happy with this ref who looks like a shorter, clean shaven @thewillswenson all game. Every time Holtmann is mad about a call, it seems to be him blowing the whistle. pic.twitter.com/k9tqtXOLHF— Land-Grant Holy Land (@Landgrant33) November 23, 2021
While the total rebounding numbers were fairly close — Seton Hall had 36 while OSU had 31 —the Pirates an overwhelmingly dominant advantage on the offensive end. The Pirates pulled down 14 offensive rebounds to Ohio State’s four. Fortunately though, those 13 rebounds only led to eight second-chance points but they certainly can have a demoralizing impact on the defense.
The Buckeyes will play the winner of the day’s nightcap between Cal and Florida in the Beach division’s championship game on Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. ET. The game will be broadcast on FS1.