As he was recruiting E.J. Liddell, coach Chris Holtmann very much wanted the Illinois native to play basketball for Ohio State.


However, he might not have been the most invested member of his family. During the final weeks of Liddell’s recruitment, it was Holtmann’s daughter, Nora, who 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 Liddell called to give the news that he was picking the Buckeyes over Illinois and Missouri, Holtmann woke up his daughter to deliver the news.


Liddell’s 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 19th-ranked 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 after the game. “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 with 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 remaining, Liddell rejected a shot by 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 go-ahead 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,” Liddell said. “I feel like that helped us win the game, the 40-minute grind that our coaches talk about.”


Holtmann said that after football coach Ryan Day took in the 77-63 win over Michigan on 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 (how) every guy’s 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.”


ajardy@dispatch.com


@AdamJardy