The seventh-best offense in the nation versus the 16th-best defense in the nation. The second-leading scorer in the Big Ten versus the third-leading scorer in the B1G. Two fifth-year point guards going at each others’ necks in a 12 noon B1G matchup on a Saturday; what else could you possibly want? It’s poetry that practically writes itself.
On Friday, Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann called Saturday’s game against the No. 22 Wisconsin Badgers (8-2, 1-1) their toughest test yet, despite having already played then-No. 1 Duke. That was probably a nod of respect to Wisconsin rather than a slight of the now-No. 3 Blue Devils, but the point stands — the Buckeyes (8-2, 2-0) knew they were getting into a “bone on bone” matchup on Saturday, as Holtmann called it.
Both teams were coming off wins this past week; Ohio State beat a feisty Towson team 85-74 on Wednesday night — the same night that Wisconsin overcame a 22-point deficit to defeat the Indiana Hoosiers, 64-59 at home. While by no means a “must-win” for either team, both squads were looking to start 2-0 in the Big Ten’s conference mini-start to conference play that first began four seasons ago. A loss for either team could also mean dropping out of the AP Poll.
The Buckeyes rolled out their now regular starting lineup of Jamari Wheeler, Malaki Branham, Justin Ahrens, E.J. Liddell, and Zed Key. Wisconsin countered a three-guard lineup of Brad Davison, Chuckie Hepburn, Jonathan Davis, Tyler Wahl, and Steven Crowl.
Wisconsin landed the first punch in this one, jumping out to an early 19-11 lead almost wholly behind the efforts of Davison and Davis. Ohio State responded with a 12-0 run to take a 23-19 lead by the 6:37 mark of the opening stanza.
Behind Liddell’s 14 points and Russell’s 7, the Buckeyes were able to take a 34-29 lead into the break. As expected, Wisconsin’s Davis was elite, but Liddell may have been better. When you throw in Russell’s contributions, the Buckeyes were able to head to the locker room with a little life.
The Buckeyes came out of the gates hot in the second half, extending their lead to as many as 17 behind the heroic combo of — you guessed it — Key and Meechie Johnson. During a three-minute span, Johnson scored six points, had a steal, and assisted Key on two buckets of his own to pad Ohio State’s lead. OSU took a 53-36 lead following all of Johnson and Key’s antics.
Wisconsin continued to scrap (mostly Davison, that’s his forte), but the Badgers were unable to get back within striking distance over the final 10 minutes. Both teams were in the bonus with over six minutes remaining, and too many Wisconsin buckets were followed up with Wisconsin fouls on the other end — putting the Buckeyes at the line.
When all was said and done, the Buckeyes had wrapped up a 73-55 victory over the 22nd-ranked cheeseheads. Ohio State was paced by Liddell’s 28 points, 8 rebounds, and 2 blocks. Zed Key was the only other Buckeye to score in double digits with 11 points, but five others scored five points or more.
Jonathan Davis led Wisconsin with 24 points and 7 rebounds.
If you weren’t able to catch all of today’s game on this warm, drizzly December day, here’s a few of the moments that carried Ohio State to their eighth victory of the season:
Liddell opens the scoring
Liddell — guarded by 7-footer Steven Crowl — started the scoring by bringing the Badger big man out to the top of the key just 40 seconds into the game and nailing a straight-away three-pointer. Shortly after, Greg Gard switched assignments and had Tyler Wahl guard Liddell.
Davison’s 3s put Wiscy in front
Down 7-4 early, Davison nailed back-to-back three-pointers at the 15:32 mark to give Wisconsin a 10-7 lead. Davison entered the game shooting 33% from beyond the arc this season.
Wahl with the steal + layup + the foul
Up 14-9 with 11:52 remaining in the first half, Wisconsin’s Wahl took advantage of some loose ball handling from Branham and took it the other way, driving to the basket. In the process he was fouled by Branham and hit the free throw as well, giving his Badgers a 17-9 lead early in the first half.
Buckeyes go on a 12-0 run
Down 19-11 after Davison’s third bucket of the game at the 10:55 mark of the first half, Ohio State went on a 12-0 run over the next 4:03, capped off by Key’s dunk of a lob from Wheeler with 6:37 remaining in the half. Liddell also had five points during that 12-0 run, and really asserted himself over the first 20 minutes with 14 points.
Cedric Russell gives Bucks a boost, but Davis answers
After only playing five minutes against Towson on Wednesday, Russell’s name was called early against Wisconsin, and he answered the call. Up by one point with just over four minutes left in the first half, Russell scored on back-to-back Buckeye possessions, knocking down two contested mid-range shots. This gave Ohio State a 29-24 lead at the time, but Davis promptly deposited a step-back triple to make it 29-27.
Maybe it's just me, but I think Ced should play more.— Land-Grant Holy Land (@Landgrant33) December 11, 2021
Have to agree, there.
The Meechie Johnson experience ™
Johnson has been described as out of control, unpredictable, and indecisive. He was even described as “Duane-ish” once. He’s still young, and despite his experience last season, is still a freshman — technically.
And in a game where he was pitted against two elite guards in Davison and Davis, he made his mark in the second half on Saturday.
Up eight points at the 14:58 mark, he canned a deep three from in front of Ohio State’s bench to make it 42-31 Buckeyes. After Davis answered with a bucket of his own, Johnson had the ball poked away from him by Wahl, but had the awareness to grab it back himself and lob it to Key for the dunk which made it 44-33 Ohio State.
One minute later, Johnson hit another three — from the opposite wing — to make it 47-36 Ohio State. Then on the very next Wisconsin possession, Johnson stole the ball back from Wahl (karma) and raced down the floor. He then found Key on a cross-court pass for the easy dunk at the 11:45 mark, giving Ohio State a 49-36 lead.
A lot going on, and all of it involved Meechie Johnson. And it was good.
Liddell gets in on the fun
Right after the Johnson and Key bromance/offensive onslaught, Liddell drove to the rack, spun, and was fouled by Davis as well. Liddell punched the sky and screamed, while Wheeler and Russell flexed and yelled in Liddell’s face. The Schott erupted. Liddell knocked down the free throw to give Ohio State a 20-point lead, 56-36, with 9:53 to go.
No. 21 Ohio State (8-2, 2-0) will now take a brief, three-game break from conference play starting next Saturday against No. 10 Kentucky (7-1). The Wildcats started the season with a 79-71 loss to No. 3 Duke, but have since rattled off seven straight wins to get their feet back under them. The catch is that the average KenPom rank of those seven wins are 276, and (clearly) none of them were ranked. Time will tell if their bottom-scraping non-conference schedule has truly prepared them for this game or not.
The Buckeyes beat Kentucky in 2015 and then again in 2019 participating in the CBS Sports Classic. Ohio State’s game against UK will be played in Las Vegas, broadcast on CBS, and tips off at 5:00 p.m. ET.