The questions kept coming from one of the most unlikely voices.
Preparing for his second season at Ohio State, coach Chris Holtmann was looking for one more top-level recruit to sign for his 2019 class. So every time he had contact with his top remaining target, his daughter, Nora, would ask him the same question repeatedly.
"Daddy, did we get E.J.?"
The 6-foot-6 power forward from Belleville, Illinois, had left such a lasting impression on young Nora that, when he called to give the news that he was picking the Buckeyes over Illinois and Missouri, Chris Holtmann woke her up to deliver the news.
His addition clearly meant the world to the Holtmann family. It was a significant recruiting battle won, and it had major ramifications Thursday night at Value City Arena. In his first game against the Fighting Illini, Liddell posted his first career double-double with 17 points and 11 rebounds to lead the No. 19 Buckeyes past No. 23 Illinois, 71-63.
The scoring total tied a career high. The rebounds set a new one. It was the finest all-around game of Liddell’s first season, and a promise of what could still lie ahead for both the freshman and his team’s hopes for the postseason.
"We are constantly trying to identify guys that really, really fit us and we are pursuing those guys with all of our heart and all of the stuff we can bring," Holtmann said afterward. "From day one, we felt like that with him and from day one since he’s arrived here that’s been confirmed in our minds every day. He is very much our kind of guy. He’s a tremendous kid who’s only going to get better."
With Kyle Young out for a third straight game as he recovers from a right ankle injury, Liddell again stepped into the breach in a big way. His two-handed slam dunk off a Luther Muhammad miss with 9:02 to play gave the Buckeyes the lead for good at 53-51. With 6:17 to play, Liddell rejected a shot attempted by 6-foot-5 Illinois guard Alan Griffin well into the stands to preserve the lead at 56-51.
"That was wild," senior forward Andre Wesson said. "That block was crazy. I saw the whole thing coming, though. He got up and it sounded like a gun went off when he hit it. It was a great athletic play."
It moved Liddell to 29 blocks on the season, tying him with Jim Ellinghausen for ninth-most for a freshman in program history. It also received a comparable reaction to the lead-giving dunk he threw down.
"It was a big momentum swing when I got the dunk, but we just stayed together the whole game and played our butts off the whole entire game," he said. "I feel like that helped us win the game, the 40-minute grind that our coaches talk about."
It’s been a gradual progression for Liddell, who is only the second two-time Mr. Basketball winner in Illinois history. After averaging 9.7 points during a six-game stretch in December, Liddell made only two field goals in his next four games. He then had 18 in his next two games before scoring 24 in his next seven games before breaking out with a career-high 17 in a loss at Iowa on Feb. 20.
His offense was the biggest positive in an otherwise challenging game for the Buckeyes, and while Holtmann praised him afterward, he was 5 of 11 from the floor in the defeat and seemed to try to force things a little too often.
But along the way, there’s been flashes that eventually grew into Thursday night’s breakout with Young again watching while wearing a walking boot on that right ankle. Holtmann said that after football coach Ryan Day took in the 77-63 win against Michigan last Sunday, he singled out Liddell.
"He actually looked at E.J. and said, ‘Hey listen, I see you getting better,’ " Holtmann said. "He talked about every guys’ path is different. You’ve got to own your own path. Sometimes guys figure it out a little earlier. He’s really come on, and it’s a credit to the kind of kid he is."
"He’s done a great job seizing the opportunity that’s been there. It’s really been about five weeks where we’ve all sat in here and said, here it comes. Today his offense and defense were critical. He was phenomenal, and now we’ve got to see if he can keep doing that."
At a time, there was a legitimate possibility that Liddell could have been wearing different colors for Thursday night’s game. Instead, he was on the court for the final 13:19 as Ohio State turned a six-point deficit into an eight-point win that dealt a significant blow to Illinois’ hopes of winning a share of the Big Ten title.
The thought of what could have been paled in comparison to his desire to send his seniors out with a win, Liddell said.
"Illinois is a good basketball team, but I didn’t want my guys to go out on a bad note in their last home game," he said. "I feel like everybody was more motivated to get a win for these guys on senior night because last year on senior night they lost. I feel like that was a big motivation."
In the final seconds, Holtmann called Liddell over and gave him a message.
"He said moments like these, we live for," Liddell said. "He said I played my butt off and they need more out of that. He said I’ve been practicing as hard as I can and it’s paying off in the game."
No doubt it was appreciated by multiple members of the Holtmann family.
Shaking off cold shooting
This was a unique win for Ohio State this season from a shooting standpoint.
The Buckeyes entered Thursday’s game a perfect 11-0 when hitting at least 10 three-pointers in a game this season. Otherwise, Ohio State was 9-9 when held to single digits, so the fact that Ohio State won despite a 3-for-15 shooting effort from three was notable in that regard.
It also marked the fewest made threes in a game for the Buckeyes this season, win or lose. On three other occasions, they had made only five threes: a season-opening win against Cincinnati, a 12-point road loss to Maryland and a three-point home loss to Minnesota.
"I didn’t know our numbers were quite as bad as what they were," Holtmann said. "Now, we didn’t turn it over. We had six in the first eight minutes and five the rest of the game. Kaleb made a couple threes, but outside of that we couldn’t find a three. They made plays on the rim. I thought we were able to get them in transition and we were able to get to the free-throw line. And the offensive rebounding."
Kaleb Wesson was 2 for 4 from three, both of which came during the second half. Duane Washington Jr. had the other one. The .200 three-point shooting percentage was only the second time the Buckeyes were below 30.0% this season, and it was the second time in three games after they went 6 for 25 (24.0%) in a 21-point laugher at Nebraska a week ago.
Sticking with what works
After missing a shot in the paint on consecutive possessions, Washington checked out of the game with 13:19 to play and was relieved by Liddell.
Holtmann would make no further substitutions until Kaleb Wesson picked up his fifth foul with 1:49 to play and Washington checked back into the game.
"We just rode with E.J.," Holtmann said. "He was playing well. That group was playing better."
Washington finished with nine points on 3-of-12 shooting and had two turnovers.
Illinois brought two offensive focal points to the game in sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu and freshman center Kofi Cockburn. Dosunmu averaged a team-high 16.4 points per game and was scoring 20.0 per game in his last four games, while Cockburn had put up 12 double-doubles while making a strong argument for Big Ten freshman of the year.
Dosunmu did plenty of early damage against the Buckeyes and finished with a game-high 21 points, but he did not score during the final 11:10 and was only able to attempt two shots as sophomore guard Luther Muhammad hounded him. It was a trade-off Holtmann said he’ll take with Muhammad, who scored just one point while missing six field-goal attempts.
"(Luther) really made him work," Holtmann said. "Only scored one point, but his impact was phenomenal. It was a lot of work for him. It does take away from your offense when you’re working like he was on a tremendous player in Ayo. I thought his defense was up there as a significant difference in the game."
In the paint, Cockburn never really got untracked. His five field-goal attempts tied for a season-low total, and his three rebounds were his lowest output in Big Ten play. He finished with four fouls in 23 minutes.
Kaleb Wesson drew the primary defensive responsibilities. During the second half, Wesson drew contact from Cockburn, scored through the foul and stared the freshman down as he backed away before hitting the free throw to give Ohio State a 61-55 lead with 4:26 to play.
"That’s Kaleb," his brother said. "He’s wild. I’m happy for him. He played good, too. That was a good moment for him. Hopefully he can keep it going."
The game was also the backdrop for a reunion featuring the program’s lone national championship team, as surviving members and spouses of the 1960 Ohio State team returned to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the title.
Before the game, Jerry Lucas, Mel Nowell, Joe Roberts and Dick Furry met with the media for an interview session that lasted nearly half an hour. Visit BuckeyeXtra.com in the coming days for the details of what was discussed during what as a significantly busy evening for the program.
This year’s team got to spend time with the group during shoot around the day of the game.
"We took a picture with the 1960 team," Holtmann said. "This was obviously senior night, a chance to honor the 1960 national championship team, they came to shoot around. It was a phenomenal experience, I think, for all of us. We didn’t get to spend time with everybody. We had a game to play, but it was great having them here."
The biggest halftime applause came for Lucas and Bob Knight, a reserve on that team.
"We talked with them for a little bit," senior walk-on Danny Hummer said. "A few of them have been to this banquet that we have so we know all about their story and everything. It was cool to see Bob Knight back here."
Asked what they knew about Lucas’ rebounding (he had three 30-rebound games in his Ohio State career), Andre Wesson said, "We know he was crazy. He was too much. That’s about it."
The box score
Ohio State 71, Illinois 63
ILL: Cockburn 2-5 2-2 6, Frazier 3-10 1-2 8, Feliz 4-14 2-2 11, Dosunmu 9-14 2-2 21, Williams 2-3 0-0 6, Griffin 2-5 2-2 7, Nichols 1-3 0-0 2, Bezhanishvili 1-1 0-0 2, Jones 0, Underwood 0, Hamlin 0, Oladimeji 0. Totals 24-55 9-10 63.
OSU: A.Wesson 2-8 4-4 8, K.Wesson 7-10 3-4 19, Muhammad 0-6 1-2 1, Washington 3-12 2-2 9, Hummer 1-1 0-0 2, Walker 2-10 11-13 15, Liddell 7-9 3-3 17, Ahrens 0, Diallo 0-1 0-0 0, Hookfin 0. Totals 22-57 24-28 71.
Halftime: Illinois, 37-30. Three-point goals: Illinois 6-22 (Williams 2-3, Dosunmu 1-3, Griffin 1-3, Frazier 1-6, Feliz 1-6, Nichols 0-1), Ohio State 3-15 (K.Wesson 2-4, Washington 1-4, A.Wesson 0-4, Walker 0-2, Muhammad 0-1). Rebounds: Illinois 31 (Feliz 11), Ohio State 38 (Liddell 11). Assists: Illinois 10 (Dosunmu 5), Ohio State 11 (Walker 5). Turnovers: Illinois 14, Ohio State 11. A: 16,382.
"We’re just playing with a lot of confidence right now. Just getting back to what we were doing earlier in the season, really. Playing more freely, playing more connected offensively and we’re just trying to keep that going." – Andre Wesson