Twenty-three days. Five hundred and 52 hours. Thirty-three thousand 120 minutes. That’s how long it has been since the Ohio State men’s basketball team had been on the floor. Back on Dec. 11, the Buckeyes knocked No. 24 Wisconsin in convincing fashion 73-55. Chris Holtmann and his team were starting to gain momentum and then they were smacked in the face by Covid-19.
Ohio State (9-2, 3-0) had three games canceled (Kentucky, Tennessee-Martin, New Orleans), but they returned to action on Sunday night by visiting the Nebraska Cornhuskers (6-8, 0-3) and while there were certainly signs of rust, the Buckeyes beat the Children of the Corn 87-79 in what will go down in history as The Malaki Branham Game™️.
Ohio State’s glue guy and resident new dad Kyle Young was unavailable, but the rest of the Buckeye roster was available for Holtmann, save Justice Sueing and Seth Towns who have been injured all season. According to the program, Young was out with a non-covid related illness.
Thanks to the home Huskers wanting to limit the impact that Ohio State’s Naismith Award candidate E.J. Liddell, Branham was often left open and he was able to have a career game even before the teams reached halftime.
✔️ Dunks— FOX College Hoops (@CBBonFOX) January 3, 2022
Honestly, what HASN'T @MalakiBranham done for @OhioStateHoops this game?? pic.twitter.com/mkaS9Ew4JJ
The freshman finished the game with a whopping 35 points on 13-for-19x shooting (68.4%) and paced all scorers. He had tied his career high of 11 points with 8:44 left before halftime. In fact, in the first half, Branham was the only Buckeye that looked like he was really ready to get back into action; he was the only member of the Scarlet and Gray to connect on more than one field goal in the opening stanza. Jamari Wheeler was 2-of-3 from the floor for five points, but Cedric Russell, Zed Key, and E.J. Liddell all contributed a single basket.
At the half, the Buckeyes led by a single bucket 34-32 thanks to Key’s jumper with nine seconds before the break.
Both teams battled back and forth in the second half, as each team had gotten pretty hot from the floor. However, with 8:19 remaining in the second half, the Huskers finally evened the score again for the first time since the first half. With an Eduardo Andre layup, the score was knotted at 59. Then with 6:39 to go, a pair of free throws gave the home team a 63-62 lead, their first since 1:24 left in the first half.
Despite the fact that the Buckeyes shot 50% (13-26) in the second half, everything felt like a slog for Holtmann’s squad. One of the ways that OSU has succeeded this season was by getting to the line. However, at the under-4 media timeout, they had only attempted six free throws compared to Nebraska’s 19.
After Nebraska’s Lat Mayen threw down a dunk to extend the lead to 72-67 with 00:36 left, Wheeler countered nine seconds later with his second three-pointer of the game. After a pair of timeouts, Mayen missed a pair of free throws giving OSU a shot. Meechie Johnson missed a driving layup, but Liddell got the rebound and was fouled on the put back. The big man then hit both free throws to tie the game at 72.
With time running out, Nebraska’s Kobe Webster drove the lane and missed the layup, but Derrick Walker got the rebound. However, Ohio State’s Eugene Brown III came across the paint to block the game-winning layup attempt and to force overtime.
In the extra period Wheeler opened up the action by connecting on another three pointer, to give the Buckeyes their first lead since there was 7:19 left in regulation. Then, after an empty possession for the Huskers, Johnson hit a triple of his own, opening a 78-72 advantage for the good guys.
But Nebraska wasn’t going to go away quietly. On their next trip down the floor, Bryce McGowens connected on a three-pointer of his own. However, Wheeler channeled his inner Ethel Merman and said, “Anything you can do I can do better,” as he hit his fourth three-pointer of the game and second of OT. Following the bucket, OSU led 81-75 with just under two minutes remaining in the period.
With just 00:46 remaining in overtime, Liddell flexed his defensive muscles by blocking a layup attempt from Mayen. The Buckeye star then hit a pair of free throws on the other end to effectively ice the game.
He’s on fire!
With the Huskers looking to protect the paint against Liddell and Key, Branham took control earlier. Here are some real, official Big Ten Network highlights from the freshman in the first five minutes of the game.
Branham connected from beyond the arc three times in the first 5:19 of action; that gave him nine of OSU’s first 11 points and paced the Buckeyes to an early 11-4 lead.
After the Huskers clawed back to take a lead, Branham decided that he wasn’t done, hitting a jumper in the lane and his fourth triple of the night. At the media timeout with 6:37 remaining in the first half, the freshman guard had already set a new career high with 14 points on 5-of-8 shooting and 4-of-6 from deep.
Already a career night for @OhioStateHoops' @MalakiBranham. pic.twitter.com/AG5lHkKvgX— Ohio State on BTN (@OhioStateOnBTN) January 3, 2022
But the young gun was not done there. By the time that the teams went into the locker room, Branham was 8-for-12 from the floor, including 5-for-8 from distance. Clearly, he led all scorers with 21 points. In fact, he had 61.8% of the Buckeyes’ 34 first half points.
The Big Ten Network broadcast talked a lot about the fact that Nebraska is sponsored by Adidas, while we all know that Ohio State is a Nike school. So, the game on Sunday night was played with an Adidas ball.
So, being the forward thinking, team players that we are, we submitted a humble request to Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith.
Dear @OSU_AD,— Land-Grant Holy Land (@Landgrant33) January 3, 2022
How do I submit a petition to allow Malaki Branham to shoot Adidas basketballs every game? If the rest of the team wants to stick with Nike, that's fine, but Malaki needs to never touch a non-Adidas ball again.
What was nice to see from Branham was that he wasn’t putting up those insane numbers because he was playing hero ball or forcing anything. The vast majority of his points came in the normal flow of the offense and because the defense was collapsing on the big guys down low.
With his team struggling down the stretch, Branham hit a pair of free throws to cut the deficit to a single point at 66-65. The two freebies put the freshman at 31 points on the night.
Shaking Off the Rust
Even if Ohio State hadn’t been off for an extended holiday hiatus, chances are pretty good that Nebraska would have forced them to turn the ball over more than we would have liked to see. The Huskers force 16.1 turnovers per game, which is the best in the Big Ten. In the first 20 minutes of action, they were right on their average having turned the Buckeyes over eight times.
But given the three weeks off, after getting off to their Branham-fueled early lead, the Buckeyes’ sloppiness extend beyond just their ability to hold onto the ball. OSU missed eight of its next nine shots from the floor after they went up 11-4, and the Huskers capitalized by taking a three-point lead a couple of times in the first half.
Before the break, the Huskers went on a 10-point run and another eight-point run in the first half to keep them in the game.
The second half saw the Buckeyes improve their shooting, but they needed to go deep into their bench to keep guys from getting too worn down. Jimmy Sotos gave Ohio State a really solid eight minutes in the second half, which saw him spell Wheeler. Sotos hit a three pointer and contributed a pair of assists in addition to some pretty stout defense.
Joey Brunk also saw the floor more than we are accustomed to, but unfortunately, a moving screen from the Indiana transfer erased a three-pointer from Russell. On the ensuing possession, Nebraska increased their lead to 65-62.
Aside from Branham’s superhuman output, Wheeler was the only other Buckeye in double figures in regulation, and every single bucket seemed like a fight for OSU before the extra period. There never seemed to be much continuity from Ohio State. Clearly it will take them some time to get their legs back underneath them, but as they are trying to get re-acclimated to the pace of play, they are smack dab in the middle of the B1G season, and that’s never a good time to have to figure stuff out.
Liddell Slow to Get Back in the Flow
Perhaps it was the three weeks off, perhaps it was the extra attention paid by the Huskers, perhaps it was a little bit of Column A and a little bit of Column B, but the Buckeye’s big man struggled in the first 20 minutes. Liddell was a chilly 1-for-7 from the floor (including 0-for-3 from deep). He went into the locker room with 3 points, 3 rebounds, and 3 assists.
Liddell finally connected on his second field goal at 10:07 remaining in regulation as hit a triple to put OSU up eight. Then, with just over five minutes remaining, Liddell picked up his fourth foul and went to the bench.
This was clearly not a game that Liddell is going to put on his personal highlight reels, but the rebound that he collected with nine seconds remaining was an impressive effort and connecting on both FTs shows how clutch he is.
He certainly didn’t play his best game of the season, but his final stat line shows that he doesn’t need to score a ton of points to influence the game. He finished with 10 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 blocks.
Ohio State will be back in action on Thursday, Jan. 6 against Indiana. The game will take place in Bloomington at 7 p.m. ET and will air on FS1.