Malaki Branham and his teammates were at school when the announcement was broadcast over the speakers.
It was March 12, and Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary was set to face Youngstown Chaney that evening in a Division II regional semifinal in Canton. The Fighting Irish, at 20-4 overall, had their sights on a trip to Value City Arena for the state finals and an eventual championship.
Then came the announcement. Due to the ongoing spread of the coronavirus, all athletic events were postponed until further notice, which obviously included Branham’s game that night. Eventually, it meant the premature end of a standout junior season that saw Branham solidify himself as a high-level recruit and one of the best players in Ohio.
"After they let us go, coach Dru (Joyce) talked to us a little bit, saying hopefully we can still play out this season," Branham told The Dispatch. "We were just talking about the season. That was very hard. We definitely had a great group of guys, and I definitely think we could’ve won a state championship."
Branham made his final impression of the season an impressive one. In a district final, he scored 30 points and added five rebounds and five steals to turn a two-point halftime deficit into a 69-57 win. Branham scored 19 of his points during the second half to lead the comeback.
He would be named a finalist for Ohio’s Mr. Basketball award, which went to Walnut Ridge senior VonCameron Davis. Branham finished as a first-team all-state selection after averaging 21.0 points per game.
"I took a big role this year on being a leader of the team," he said. "I can’t come out flat. They look at me as an example, so I’ve got to push myself to be the best player that I can be in practice and in the game and motivate my teammates as well.
"(Sophomore) year I really wasn’t being consistent on scoring, rebounding. I think I did a pretty good job this year being consistent, helping my team out as much as I can on the defensive end or the offensive end. Also being able to do more on the court."
Listed at 6 feet 4, 175 pounds, Branham is the top native Ohioan in the class of 2021, according to 247Sports.com. He’s listed as a four-star recruit, the nation’s No. 26 overall prospect and the No. 4 shooting guard in the nation.
With off-campus recruiting at a standstill nationwide and uncertainty about whether there will be an AAU season, Branham said the possible lack of summer exposure won’t impact his recruitment. Each day brings an hour or two of communication with college coaches, he said, in between schoolwork and doing whatever workouts he can do on his own.
"I think the schools right now that have been contacting me are the schools that are really interested in me and invested in me and want me to come to their campus," he said. "I really don’t think it will impact me at all."
Branham is also among Ohio State’s biggest targets as it looks to fill out its 2021 recruiting class. The Buckeyes have in-state verbal commitments from four-star guard Meechie Johnson from the Cleveland area and three-star small forward Kalen Etzler from Convoy Crestview, and currently have one available roster spot for the class. Coach Chris Holtmann and assistant Ryan Pedon have been Branham’s primary recruiters.
"They’ve been contacting me basically every day just to see how my family is doing and how I’m doing," he said. "I talked to coach Holtmann and coach Pedon a couple of days ago. We had a conference call, just asking me how everything is going. They’ve definitely been checking up on me."
Branham is in no rush to narrow his list of schools under consideration or to make a decision, he said.