After losing four of their final five games of the season, including their first game in the Big Ten Tournament against Penn State, Ohio State (20-11, 12-8) was in the very least glad to have a full week off to get healthy. The Buckeyes were playing without a full deck of cards for several weeks, as Kyle Young (concussion), Zed Key (ankle), and Meechie Johnson (ankle) had all missed multiple games recently due to injuries. Additionally, expected starter Justice Sueing (groin/abdominal) has missed 29 straight games, and Seth Towns (back) was ruled out for the season in February.
On Friday, Chris Holtmann’s squad took a big step in the right direction to get healthy with Young, Key, and Johnson all being cleared (Johnson was cleared for the Penn State game but didn’t play) to play in today’s opening-round NCAA Tournament game against the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers.
With Loyola being one of the worst rebounding teams in the NCAA Tournament, getting both Young and Key back in time for today’s game was crucial to give the Buckeyes a chance at what many people would call an upset. The betting line heading into the game was even — despite Ohio State being the higher seed — and just 52% of all Tournament Challenge brackets on ESPN had Ohio State beating the lower-seeded Ramblers.
Chris Holtmann went with a starting lineup of Jamari Wheeler, Malaki Branham, Gene Brown, E.J. Liddell, and the new guy Young at center; Zed Key came off the bench. First-year Loyola head coach Drew Valentine went with a starting five of Hilliard-native Braden Norris, Lucas Williamson, Tate Hall, Chris Knight, and Aher Uguak.
The Buckeyes got absolutely nothing going against Loyola-Chicago’s elite defense early on, with only two Liddell free throws showing up on the scoreboard by the first media timeout. Loyola’s guards were jumping passing lanes left and right, anticipating where Ohio State was going with it and affecting the Buckeyes’ ball movement. Just over four minutes into the game, the Ramblers led 5-2.
It wasn’t pretty, but the Buckeyes tied it up 11-11 by the under-8 timeout. Over the first 12 minutes, Ohio State shot 29% overall besting Loyola’s 28%. Both teams’ defenses were on point, but it’s no surprise that Loyola’s defense came to play. What was surprising was how connected OSU was on that end of the floor early in this game.
The Buckeyes carried a filthy 23-18 lead into halftime thanks to some impressive defense as well as 10 points from Branham, who led all scorers in the first half. The Buckeyes held Loyola to 23% shooting overall and held their two leading scorers to 2-of-10 combined shooting. Liddell had four points in the first half, but they were all at the free-throw line. Loyola did a great job walling him off and making it difficult to even get shots off.
The Buckeyes opened the second half on a 6-0 run, including Liddell’s first two buckets of the game. Valentine was forced to call a timeout at the 17:24 mark with his team trailing, 29-18. By the first media timeout at the 14:17 mark, Ohio State had opened up a 33-23 lead.
Ohio State pushed their lead to 14 at one point, but the Ramblers got a few buckets and were able to make it 37-26 by the under-12 media timeout. Johnson had a huge three, Liddell was starting to get it going, and the Buckeyes continued to force pretty much everyone except Norris into taking some very difficult shots.
Loyola was able to get the deficit down to single digits several times, but they couldn’t string enough buckets together to come back against an Ohio State defense was at its absolute best. When the final buzzer sounded, the Buckeyes had wrapped up a 54-41 opening-round victory over the Missouri Valley Conference Champions.
Loyola-Chicago was led by Norris’ 14 points on 5-13 shooting. Liddell paced the Buckeyes with 16 points and 10 rebounds. OSU led for the entire second half and never let the Ramblers get closer than eight points.
If you somehow weren’t around this afternoon to catch Ohio State’s big opening-round victory over Sister Jean’s Ramblers, here are a few key moments and plays that sent the Buckeyes straight to the second round:
Kyle Young with a dad dunk
Trailing 5-2 coming out of the first media timeout, Young received a dime pass from Branham on the left block and slammed it home, cutting the Ramblers’ early lead to one point and giving him his first bucket in 17 days. Young scored five of Ohio State’s first nine points and really kept his team afloat early on.
Young finished with nine points and seven rebounds over 35 minutes.
Schwieger gives Loyola the lead, Branham answers
Tied 9-9 with 7:38 remaining in the first half, Loyola’s Ryan Schwieger escaped on a fast break and laid it up, giving the Ramblers a two-point lead. On the ensuing Ohio State possession, Branham went solo and hit a step-back jumper near the free-throw line, tying it back up 11-11 with 7:13 to go until halftime.
Schwieger finished with eight points and six rebounds over 22 minutes.
Norris triple cuts it to three
Hilliard-native Braden Norris started the day 0-3 in the shooting department, but he got a clean look from the corner directly in front of Ohio State’s bench at the 4:45 mark of the first half and buried it. That triple cut Ohio State’s lead from six to three points, once again making it a one-possession game.
Branham FTs make it a nine-point lead
With just over two minutes left in the first half, Malaki Branham was bumped on a drive-by Lucas Williamson, and the foul was called on the floor. It was Loyola’s seventh, putting the Buckeyes in the bonus. Branham knocked down both FTs making it 23-14 Buckeyes — their largest lead of the game to that point.
Branham went on to finish with 14 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 steals over 28 minutes.
E.J. sees one drop (finally)
After being held to four points on zero made shots in the first half, Liddell scored back-to-back buckets for the Buckeyes early in the second half, to push his team ahead by 11 points at the 17:24 mark. When Loyola called timeout, the Buckeyes held a 29-18 lead.
Liddell finished with 16 points, 10 rebounds, and 3 blocks over 35 minutes.
Meechie with a massive triple
Between injuries and inconsistent play, Johnson’s time on the floor has been pretty sporadic lately. He’d scored a combined two points over his last five games, and had not hit a three-pointer since February 21 against Indiana. Tonight, with Ohio State leading by an even 10 points, Johnson canned a three from right in front of Chris Holtmann to extend the Buckeyes’ lead to 36-23 with 13:38 remaining in the game.
Johnson finished with those three points and a rebound over 15 minutes.
Hall cuts the lead to single digits
The Ramblers spent much of the second half trailing, but with 10:48 remaining Hall was able to create space between himself and Liddell, stepping back and nailing a three-pointer just behind the line (it was reviewed, and confirmed a three later on). The Ohio State lead was cut to eight points, 37-29.
Hall finished with three points and two rebounds over 19 minutes.
Branham pushes the lead to 14, Norris answers
Just before the final media timeout, Branham slashed his way to the baseline and scored on a floater, giving Ohio State a 48-34 lead. But on the very next possession, Norris hit a Dirk-like stepback jumper from the free-throw line, getting Loyola back within a dozen. Ohio State led 48-36 at the final media timeout with 3:57 remaining.
Ohio State (20-11, 12-8) advances to play the winner of No. 2 Villanova and 15-seed Delaware, who play on Friday afternoon in Pittsburgh. The game time and channel for Ohio State’s second-round game are still to be announced, but the game will once again be played in PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh.