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Liddell’s career day propels Ohio State to 95-87 victory over Northwestern

E.J. Liddell and Malaki Branham put on quite the show in the Buckeyes’ return to the Schott.

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

“Two to three games.” That is the statistic that has been thrown around in recent weeks to describe how long — on average — it takes a team like Ohio State to get back into form after sitting on their hands for a long period of time due to Covid-19 delays. Well, the way luck would have it, today’s game against the Northwestern Wildcats (8-5, 1-3) is game No. 3 since OSU’s nearly three week-long layoff. Unfortunately for them, the Buckeyes were thrown a curveball just a few hours before tipoff.

Despite a missing coach, playing their first home game in over a month, and players still finding their legs after bouts with COVID-19, the Buckeyes got their 10th win of the season thanks to a 95-87 victory over Northwestern.

Around 1 pm ET, the university announced that head coach Chris Holtmann and assistant coach Ryan Pedon would be unavailable for today’s game due to “health and safety protocols” and that assistant coach Jake Diebler would serve as acting head coach. It isn’t known if either Holtmann or Pedon tested positive for COVID-19 or are out due to contract tracing, however, Pedon was pulled from his scheduled media availability Friday morning shortly before it was set to begin.

So if the Buckeyes were to win their 10th game of the season, they’d have to do so with an assistant coach at the helm — one who has never been a head coach in his life. Easy enough!

No. 13 Ohio State’s (10-3, 4-1) first game back was a bumpy, grind-it-out battle against the cellar-dwelling Nebraska Cornhuskers (6-10, 0-5) on the road, which resulted in a 87-79 overtime win. It wasn’t ideal, but a win on the road is a win on the road.

The Buckeyes then traveled to Bloomington to take on the Indiana Hoosiers (12-3, 3-2), where they were soundly outplayed from start to finish. Indiana pulled away late, dispatching the Buckeyes 67-51.

Which brings us to Sunday: Northwestern came into Columbus looking to avoid losing their third-straight game after dropping close games at home to No. 10 Michigan State and Penn State by a combined 10 points. Their best win on the season was a road win at Maryland — who are 8-6 and have yet to win a game in the Big Ten.

Led by Akron-native Pete Nance (15.9 points per game, 7.3 rebounds per game) and point guard Boo Buie (15.3 ppg, 5.8 assists per game), the Wildcats have the talent to beat any team in the conference on any given night — they just haven’t been able to do it with consistency. On top of that, all four of the Wildcats’ losses have been by six points or fewer (before today), showing that despite their four losses, they’ve been in every single game.

The Buckeyes, on the other hand, were looking to hand NU their first convincing loss of the season and get themselves back on track after their layoff. Freshman guard Malaki Branham has been the only player showing any sign of life over the past two games — would game three be when the Buckeyes finally looked like themselves again?

Diebler went with a lineup of Jamari Wheeler, Malaki Branham, Justin Ahrens, E.J. Liddell, and Kyle Young — rather than Zed Key. Key has not played well since coming back from the break, including just two points against the Hoosiers on Thursday. Young’s start was his first of the season, and the 66th of his career. Northwestern countered with Buie, Chase Audige, Pete Nance, Ty Berry, and Robbie Beran.

After a few ugly games against Nebraska and Indiana where he combined to shoot 5-of-26 from the floor for 21 combined points, Liddell came out of the gates against NU on fire, dumping 17 points on the Wildcats in the first 5:23 of the game — en route to an 8-point OSU lead at the first media timeout.

Northwestern’s defense compressed around Liddell when he was in the paint, but, for the most part, they seemed content letting him shoot from the perimeter early. He took advantage of that, knocking down his first five three-point attempts to start the game; yes, I said FIVE.

Thanks to Liddell and Branham’s combined 34 first-half points, Ohio State carried a 51-39 lead into the break. It was as explosive as their offense has looked all season long, but the Buckeyes struggled tremendously rebounding on the defensive end, allowing nine offensive rebounds to NU in the first 20 minutes. The Wildcats would finish with 16 offensive rebounds. Ohio State also turned the ball over eight times in the first half and six times in the second half. This game could have been completely out of hand by halftime had the Buckeyes tightened up those two aspects of their game.

Northwestern came out of the break and delivered a strong body-blow, outscoring Ohio State 9-4 over the first four minutes of the second period. Offensive rebounds continued to be an issue, as the Buckeyes were not doing a good job stopping the Wildcats from chasing down their own misses.

Thanks in large part to a career day from Berry, the Wildcats were able to cut Ohio State’s once-cushy lead down to just five points by the under-12 timeout in the second half. Buie and Berry in particular were thorns in OSU’s side in the second half, but that five-point gap was as close as they would get.

Northwestern continued to push Ohio State throughout the second half, rarely allowing the Buckeyes to extend their lead past 10 points. Liddell continued to pound the rock inside and outside, scoring a career-high 34 points. Branham provided another elite performance against a conference foe, scoring 24 points to go along with 4 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 steals. By the time the buzzer sounded, the Wildcats were just a few buckets too short, falling to Ohio State 95-87.

Berry led Northwestern with 23 points, closely followed by Audige and Nance’s 20 apiece. As a team, Northwestern was 47.1% from the floor and 41.7% from three-point land.

If you weren’t able to catch all of Sunday’s big Buckeye win, here are some of the big plays that carried Liddell and his gang of merry gentlemen to their fourth conference win of the season:

Liddell’s other-worldly start

To put it frankly, Liddell sucked against Nebraska and Indiana. Against the Cornhuskers he filled other areas of the stat sheet, but he wasn’t able to command the game like he normally does. Against IU he was worse, going 3-of-12 from the floor and scoring just 11 points.

Today was a little different.

In the first five minutes of action, Liddell scored 17 points on 6-of-6 shooting, including five three-pointers. Northwestern chose to press him tightly in the paint, but not on the perimeter, and he made them pay dearly for that mistake. The Buckeyes went into the first media timeout with a 19-11 lead, all but two of which were courtesy of Liddell.

Young guards extend OSU’s lead

After Liddell’s show in the first few minutes gave Ohio State a modest lead, it was the whipper-snappers — Branham and Meechie Johnson Jr. — who floored it and extended OSU’s advantage. Leading 21-12 with 13:51 left in the opening frame, Branham knocked down two free throws to extend that lead to 11 points.

After an Audige layup, Branham connected on a three pointer from just in front of the Northwestern bench to push the lead back out to a dozen points. On the very next possession, Johnson canned one from the opposite side to give Ohio State its largest lead of the day, 29-14 with 12:08 to go in the half.

Williams’ layup pulls Northwestern within 10

With 7:07 remaining in the first half and Northwestern trailing by a dozen, an Audige steal was passed downcourt to Elijah Williams, who beat the single defender to the basket and closed the gap between the two teams just a tad, 36-26.

Audige’s FT cuts the lead to single digits

With 16:49 left in the game and Ohio State leading 55-45, Robbie Beran was able to shake off Young at the top of the key with a clear path to the basket. Young was able to recover and chase Berna down, blocking his shot. Audige collected Northwestern’s tenth offensive rebound of the game and went up with it and was fouled by Liddell at the rack. Audige knocked down one of the two free throws, cutting Ohio State’s lead to single digits 55-46.

Audige’s triple cuts it to five

At the 13:03 mark of the second half and the Buckeyes leading by eight, Audige was able to can a straight-away three to cut the deficit to just five points 61-56; this was the closest that the Wildcats had been since the opening minutes. Despite being a 36% three-point shooting team, Northwestern really excelled from downtown in most of today’s game.

Young’s FT’s pad the lead

Following another Audige triple at the 9:49 mark, Young dove directly at Williams below the basket, drawing a foul and going to the line. Young knocked down both shots, giving Ohio State a 70-59 lead — their largest since being up by a dozen at halftime.

Meechie from downtown Columbus!

Up 70-63 with 8:01 remaining in the game and the shot clock dwindling, Branham gave the ball up to Johnson about six feet behind the three point line. With four seconds remaining on the shot clock and nobody near him, Johnson rose up and hoisted from DEEP, canning the triple and giving Ohio State a 10-point lead yet again. In typical Meechie fashion, it was a bad shot until it went in.

Liddell’s first 30-point game

Coming into today’s game, Liddell’s career-high was 29 points against Niagara earlier this season. However, with his turnaround jumper with 4:35 to go today, he eclipsed that mark and finally notched the first 30-point game of his collegiate career. It was a needed basket too, as Ohio State’s lead had dwindled to just eight points with under five minutes remaining.

Up Next:

No. 13 Ohio State will travel to Madison, Wisc. on Thursday night to take on the No. 23 Wisconsin Badgers (12-2, 3-1), whom they soundly beat 73-55 back on Dec. 11. Since that loss, Wisconsin has won four straight games, including a huge win on the road against No. 3 Purdue.

The Badgers’ Jonathan Davis has established himself as not just a Big Ten Player of the Year candidate, but a National Player of the Year candidate as well. He is averaging 22.6 points and 7.4 rebounds per game this season. Since losing to Ohio State, he’s averaged 27.6 points and 11.3 rebounds per contest.

Ohio State’s game against the Badgers is scheduled to tip off at 7 p.m. ET and will be broadcast on ESPN2.