Having collected his own miss on a three-pointer, Iowa’s Luka Garza went back up with a second-chance effort as the hometown fans roared their approval. Like he had so many times this season, the front-runner for national player of the year honors seemed set to deliver another dagger for the Hawkeyes, this one at the expense of Ohio State.
E.J. Liddell was having none of that.
In the midst of what would become the most productive game of his freshman season, the Buckeyes forward elevated and swatted Garza’s attempt. Access denied, at least on this play.
It didn’t spark the Buckeyes to an upset win at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Thursday night. It didn’t even lead to points for the Buckeyes, as Kaleb Wesson almost immediately turned the ball over on a misguided full-court pass. But it was another feather in the cap of the improving freshman who, on this night, was Ohio State’s most reliable player for long stretches of action.
Not that Liddell saw it that way.
"It was just another blocked shot," he told The Dispatch after the game. "He’s (Garza’s) a great player; he’s up for a lot of awards. But it’s something I’ve been doing my whole life. No matter the person, I’m going to go up and try to block his shot."
Garza would go on to get his, as he has done all season, and finished with his eighth straight game of at least 20 points in Iowa’s 85-76 victory. Liddell, however, set career highs with 17 points, eight rebounds and 26 minutes played. When the Buckeyes fell behind 18-3 in an opening stretch that essentially sealed their fate, Liddell’s putback of a Wesson miss, which turned into a three-point play, was only the Buckeyes’ second made field goal of the game.
Near the end of the first half, Liddell connected on three of Ohio State’s four consecutive field goals to help get the deficit down to single digits. Included in there was a nifty fadeaway jumper over the hulking Garza.
"Tonight it was just one of his better scoring nights," junior guard CJ Walker said of Liddell. "He can do that on a nightly basis. That’s what we expect from him, and that’s what he brings to the team."
The goal for Liddell going forward is to get more consistent and to cut down on some of his mistakes. During the second half, Liddell endured a stretch where he forced a turnaround, fadeaway jumper that missed, committed a turnover in the post and then also had the ball knocked free to force a shot clock violation. His 17 points came on 5-of-11 shooting, with all but one of his shots coming inside the three-point line.
"He’s still working on some things defensively, but I love the confidence he played with, the aggressiveness he came with," coach Chris Holtmann said. "Not only flashing in and out of the zone, which we thought he could be effective at, but getting some deep post-ups."