CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – It was a simple message from mom that helped set a tone for E.J. Liddell.
Entering Ohio State's first road game of the season, coach Chris Holtmann had openly expressed concern and intrigue over how his youthful team would react to hostile energy. In particular, he was speaking of his freshman, led by key contributors D.J. Carton and E.J. Liddell.
So as he prepared to take the court in North Carolina's Dean E. Smith Center where dozens of jerseys and banners hang, Liddell listened to mom.
“My mom texts me before every game,” Liddell said after scoring a career-high 12 points in a 74-49 win against the No. 7 Tar Heels. “She knows how excited I can really get. She just told me to take a deep breath and just live in the moment, which I did. I worked off my teammates and they helped me out a lot tonight.”
Befitting the stage and the situation, the No. 6 Buckeyes endured a nervy start and came up empty on their first three possessions, all of which ended in turnovers. They trailed 5-3 and then 8-6, but sophomore Duane Washington Jr. hit three three-pointers to score nine of Ohio State's first 12 points and cover up some of his team's mistakes.
Then, with the lead at 12-8, Liddell checked in at the 14:08 mark. Not even a minute later, he got the ball at the right elbow, turned over his left shoulder and hit a jumper for his first points. Two possessions later, he did the same thing from the left elbow, helping keep the Tar Heels at bay in the early going.
It set a tone, and it came from a freshman Holtmann said will look back and laugh at how raw and out-of-control he appeared in his debut in the season opener.
“He's getting there, I think,” the coach said of Liddell. “He's really getting there. We've got to try to put him in positions where he can impact the game offensively. He blocked a couple shots tonight, which was good. He's got to continue to get fitter and better defensively, but he knows that he can come in and impact the game offensively. He's got a confidence about him.”
In only 15:31, Liddell was 4 of 6 from the floor, perfect on four free throws and added five rebounds, two blocks, a steal and an assist with no turnovers.
Those two early jumpers were shots Liddell said are part of an overall game he is eager to show.
“I feel like I could do that in the post a lot,” he said. “They played me one-on-one in the post and in high school I didn't get that. It was a lot of double teams. When I got the opportunity, I took the shots.”
Washington, who had a game-high 18 points, said the freshman has shown steady improvement as a result of his daily focus.
“He's been approaching practice the same way: serious-minded,” the sophomore said. “We all have. I feel like every time we have the opportunity to get better, we're getting better. I think that's really, really important right now in this month of December. He's just prepared: prepared for his moment, prepared for his time and tonight you could see why.”
Asked if it was really as simple as a straightforward message from mom Wednesday night, Liddell smiled.
“Yes,” he said. “And my dad called me tonight too and said he knows what I can do. Just go out there and play hard. They just worry about me playing as hard as I can. I've got to bring the energy off the bench and bring a motor.”
By the Numbers
Ohio State entered the night 2-12 all-time against the Tar Heels. Its last win came on March 27, 1992, when the Buckeyes beat North Carolina 80-73 in the Sweet Sixteen. Otherwise, the only Ohio State on-campus win against the Tar Heels was a 43-30 home win in the first-ever meeting between the programs on January 2, 1929.
The Buckeyes had lost seven straight to the Tar Heels and were winless in their two prior trips to the Dean Center.
It also snapped a losing streak in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge that stretched back to the 2013-14 season. Since the Buckeyes beat Maryland 75-60 on Dec. 4, 2013, they had lost five straight games in the Challenge and had dropped to 7-11 overall as participants.
No team has cracked 57 points against Ohio State this season, and the Tar Heels join Purdue Fort Wayne (46 points) as the second team to fail to crack 50 points against the Buckeyes. Morgan State still holds the best shooting percentage against the Buckeyes after going 21 for 56 (37.5 percent) in Ohio State's 90-57 win last Friday.
The Tar Heels, who have dealt with a number of injuries already, took a significant blow during the first half when second-leading scorer Armando Bacot landed on another player's foot and was done for the night. He could not put any weight on his left leg and had to be carried to the locker room by two teammates, but afterward coach Roy Williams said it was a sprained ankle.
“It was swollen by the time they got to the locker room so my guess is he will be out for a while,” the coach said.
Holtmann said the game changed “tremendously” when Bacot went down.
“He's a tremendous player,” the coach said. “He's so much a part of what they do, on the glass, in their post, their size. Roy typically has four or five bigs and I think they're a little bit thinner this year, but it was a tremendous difference.”
His absence undoubtedly played a key role in keeping the Tar Heels down, and he wasn't the only player struggling. Williams said star freshman guard Cole Anthony was sick and had been dealing with a fever since Tuesday night.
He also suffered a gash on his forehead when Ohio State forward Alonzo Gaffney caught him with an inadvertent elbow.
Aside from Gaffney's elbow, the Buckeyes obviously keyed on North Carolina's primary scorer and shooter. He finished with a team-high 15 points on 4-of-15 shooting, but all of his field goals came from beyond the three-point line. Inside the arc, he was scoreless on seven attempts.
Sophomore guard Luther Muhammad drew primary defensive responsibilities, but he played only 8:28 due to foul trouble. Junior CJ Walker, who had played here before while at Florida State, shadowed him often, and senior Andre Wesson did as well.
Those three give the Buckeyes something Holtmann said they didn't have last season, and it is keying what is proving to be a top-rated defense.
“I think CJ gives us now a bit of a luxury with Luther because they're different in how they play,” he said. “Usually between the three of those guys (with Andre), we can put some other guys that may not be as far along defensively on the perimeter. That was the case tonight.”
Hitting the glass
The Tar Heels entered the game outrebounding their opponents by an average of 16.7 boards per game.
Ohio State finished with a 48-32 advantage as every scholarship player save for Gaffney grabbed at least two rebounds. According to Liddell, it had been a significant point of emphasis entering the game.
“The plan defensively was to keep them out of the paint and offensive rebound, and that's what we did,” he said. “We beat them on the offensive rebound battle. We worked a lot on rebounding in practice and I feel like that's what helped us out because their second offense is rebounding.”
The Tar Heels finished with 13 offensive rebounds. Ohio State had a 16-8 advantage in second-chance points and outscored North Carolina 30-10 in the paint.
“Just more work on rebounding,” Liddell said. “A lot of hitting the pads and rebounding and trying to get into their lower legs, which that helped.”
On a given practice day, Liddell said the Buckeyes' attention to rebounding is roughly a six on a scale of 1-10. Leading into this game, he put that at an eight or nine.
“They're a very, very, very good offensive-rebounding team,” Washington said. “First clean defensive rebounds were something we were really focused on. Hitting, boxing out, making sure they had no second-chance opportunities. We worked on it all week.”
Thanks to Washington's early gunning and Liddell's contributions, the Buckeyes built a first-half lead that reached eight points but only took a two-point lead into their locker room.
The primary culprit: Ten first-half turnovers, many of them unforced. This against a North Carolina team that had been forcing teammates into an average of 11 turnovers per game.
“We felt like in the first half that we were self-inflicting wounds,” Washington said. “We cleaned it up in the second half.”
The Buckeyes would finish with 15 for the game. They didn't turn it over until the 10:25 mark of the second half, and four of the five second-half turnovers came from junior Kaleb Wesson, who was the victim of a few questionable charge calls.
“I think we settled down a little bit,” Holtmann said. “We tried to move them a little bit more than what we did. I felt like they in the first half, particularly when it was a one- or two-possession game, they really fed off of the energy of the crowd. I didn't feel that as much in the second half when we started to get up (in double digits).”
“There's not a lot to say. I've had my butt beat before and I'll be beat again and I'll live to face another day. Their team was better than our team; their coach was a lot better than our coach. I looked up in the stands and saw people leaving with four, five, six minutes left in the game and I didn't blame them. I wasn't mad at them – we didn't do what we should do to try to provide a little more toughness.” – Williams
“This was in some ways a unique night.” – Holtmann