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Moments that mattered: Ohio State’s 67-66 season-opening victory over Akron

The Buckeyes struggled to score when Liddell was not on the floor, but a last-second bucket from Zed Key helped Ohio State escape 1-0.

NCAA Basketball: Akron at Ohio State Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Considering Ohio State’s 2020-2021 season ended at the hands of a team donning navy and gold, it only seemed appropriate that the Buckeyes would turn around and face another team wearing those colors, in their very next game. That’s right, college basketball is officially back, and the Buckeyes celebrated opening day by welcoming the Akron Zips out of the MAC to Columbus. It was the first regular season meeting between the two teams since 1985, and Akron left the building Tuesday night having just pushed an NCAA Tournament 2-seed from a year ago to their limit.

With Kyle Young still unavailable while he works back from a vestibular dysfunction diagnosis, Chris Holtmann rolled out a lineup of Jamari Wheeler, Meechie Johnson, Justin Ahrens, E.J. Liddell, and Zed Key — the same lineup used in Ohio State’s exhibition against Indianapolis last week. Justice Sueing came off the bench as he continues to recover from a “lower leg” injury that was only disclosed last week.

Akron refused to roll over, scrapping with the Buckeyes for most of the first half. Ohio State pushed their lead up to 14 at one point, but a late 7-1 run at the end of the first half cut it to eight, and the Buckeyes led 36-28 at the halfway point.

Akron delivered a sucker punch at the beginning of the second half, going on an 8-0 run to tie the game at 36. But Liddell proved to be too tough a matchup for his MAC counterparts, as the third-year Buckeye forward exploited the undersized Zips both below the basket and on the perimeter. Liddell would finish with 25 points, 11 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 blocks.

His teammates, however, struggled. Outside of Liddell and Key, the Buckeyes made it extremely hard on themselves getting the ball in the basket. After a back and forth battle, the Buckeyes emerged victorious after a buzzer-beating layup from Zed Key off the feed from Branham.

What were the key plays that led to Ohio State way-to-close-for-comfort win? Here are the moments that mattered:

Zed (is the) Key

Not much was working for Ohio State early on in this one, but Key was the exception. Akron had absolutely no answer for him in the opening minutes, as the sophomore big man connected on all three of his first three shots of the season, which also accounted for Ohio State’s only three shots they made by the under-16 media timeout. At the under-16 timeout, Akron led 8-6.

Holtmann subbed Key out at the timeout, leaving him on the bench for five minutes. When he brought him back at the 10:31 mark. Key immediately went back to work, scoring his fourth basket of the game at the 9:33 mark, giving Ohio State an 18-15 lead. Key would finish with 14 points and 5 rebounds in 25 minutes.

Ahrens’ ya glad we still have Justin?

Back off, it’s only game one. The puns will only get worse from here.

With Ohio State tangling back and forth with their in-state rivals early, Ahrens connected on back-to-back three pointers at the 13:03 and 11:53 mark of the first half — on consecutive possessions, no less. They were his first baskets of the season, and gave the Buckeyes a 14-11 lead at the under-12 timeout. Ahrens would finish the game with seven points and three assists.

Liddell’s 8-0 run

The first of (hopefully) many this season, Liddell connected from dead center beyond the three-point line with 6:58 to go in the first half. It was his first attempt from beyond the arc this season after shooting 34% from distance last season.

On the very next possession with the shot clock winding down, Liddell hit a 12-foot jumper near the left baseline, directly in teeth of the Akron defense.

The Buckeyes got Liddell the ball on their third consecutive possession, riding the hot hand. Liddell was fouled, and hit the first free throw. He missed the second, but Zed Key corralled the rebound, and missed the putback. Liddell then grabbed Key’s miss (his first miss of the night), and took it up for a forceful two-handed slam, capping his own little 8-0 run to give Ohio State a 28-19 lead with 4:55 to go in the first half.

Welcome to Columbus, Joey Brunk!

After a rough exhibition game last week (no points and five fouls in just nine minutes), both Brunk and Ohio State were certainly hoping to see a little more from the eldest Buckeye on the team. In relief of Key, Brunk played four first-half minutes, scoring four points and grabbing a rebound towards the end of the first half. His makes came on consecutive possessions, with the second being a filthy left-to-right spin move and floater that sent the Akron defender falling towards his team’s bench. Those shots gave Ohio State a 35-21 lead at the time.

Ohio State would go into the half moments later up 36-28.

The Zips hop right back in it

Akron acted like they were shot out of a cannon at the beginning of the second half, quickly scoring eight straight points to tie the game up at 36 with 18:21 remaining. An Enrique Freeman layup was followed by back-to-back triples from Xavier Castaneda, and a brand new ballgame was born.

Key’s block party

With Ohio State nursing a slim five-point lead with just under 16 minutes remaining, Zed Key basically high-pointed an Akron layup and got a finger on it, preventing a UA bucket. Akron grabbed their own miss and tried again, only to be denied by Key yet again. Johnson grabbed the miss and brought the ball back down, where he was promptly fouled on a drive to the basket.

Buckeyes go cold without Liddell

Wit a 40-36 lead and 16:19 left in the game, E.J. Liddell took a seat on the Ohio State bench. For the next six minutes, the Buckeyes failed to make a basket, with their only four points in that span coming via Meechie Johnson free throws. When Liddell checked back in with 11:31 to go, he immediately scored four points, which gave Ohio State a 48-46 lead (at the the time).

Akron takes the lead

With 7:56 left in the game and the Buckeyes leading by two, Xavier Castaneda connected on his third three-pointer of the night to give Akron a 51-50 lead. Moments later, Ali Ali slashed to the basket and scored, extending the Zips’ lead to three, 53-50.

This game went from “very fun” to “very Oral Roberts” very quickly.

Ali Ali triple for the lead

After Liddell’s coast-to-coast layup (off the steal & feed from Johnson) gave Ohio State a 59-57 lead with 4:26 to go, Akron’s Ali Ali nailed a three-pointer from just in front of his own bench. He was fouled by Liddell on the play as well, his fourth. The foul was called away from the shot, so Akron regained possession.

Ali would then hit a baseline jumper on the next possession, pushing Akron’s lead to 62-59.

Branham’s biggest shot yet

Following a Zed Key dunk that chopped the Akron lead to 62-61, Malaki Branham slashed to the right side and kissed one off the glass, giving the Buckeyes a 63-62 lead. Akron would then miss their shot at the other end, and Ohio State gathered in the rebound and called time.

Out of the timeout, Branham missed a layup, but Key was there to gather in the miss and put it back, pushing Ohio State’s lead to 65-62.

Ali Ali does it again

With six seconds left on the clock, Ali Ali took a step-back three pointer from the left wing an was fouled by Liddell — his fifth. Ali sunk the free throw, giving the zips a 66-65 lead.

Key for the win!

With three seconds left following the Ali triple, Ahrens inbounded the ball to Branham at the top of the key, who fired a perfect pass in to Key — who muscled his way up to give the Buckeyes the victory, 67-66. There was 0.3 seconds left on the clock, but Akron’s desperation heave fell short and Ohio State escaped.

Up Next:

Ohio State will welcome back former assistant Greg Paulus and the Niagara Purple Eagles to Columbus on Friday night, looking to start the season 2-0 for the 18th-straight year. Paulus, who is also known for his time at Duke as a player, was an assistant under Thad Matta from 2011-2017. Niagara opens their season tonight as well, playing on the road at Xavier. Ohio State’s matchup with Niagara tips off at 7:00 p.m. ET and will be broadcast on BTN+.