Ohio State's E.J. Liddell responds to Chris Holtmann's challenge with career-high game
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — After that first-half performance, E.J. Liddell knew what was coming.
When the No. 22 Ohio State men's basketball team headed to the locker room at the Joyce Center trailing host Notre Dame 42-34 on Tuesday, it was evident that the Buckeyes hadn’t done enough through the first 20 minutes.
The Fighting Irish had hit half their field-goal attempts, were shooting 61.1% from two-point range and had made Ohio State — Liddell in particular — uncomfortable at the offensive end.
So after Liddell had missed all five of his first-half shots and had only two points on two free throws, coach Chris Holtmann had a few strong words for his sophomore forward.
“Sorry to mom for my language, but coach chewed my (butt) at halftime and I came out the second half going hard, trying to play my hardest,” said Liddell, who used a different word to describe his backside.
“He needed me to contribute on both ends. Coach said they dotted me a few times on defense where I didn’t have my hand up. I needed to play better and lead the team better.”
Liddell responded, and so did his teammates. The sophomore scored 17 second-half points to finish with 19 and pulled down six rebounds in each half to finish with 12, both of which are career-high totals, to help the Buckeyes to a 90-85 win. He also saved his biggest basket for last.
After rallying from an 11-point deficit in the opening minutes of the second half, Ohio State had taken the lead and was ahead 83-80 with possession as the clock ticked under a minute remaining.
Liddell had the ball in his hands with the shot clock running down but he couldn’t get the ball to point guard CJ Walker. With teammate Duane Washington Jr. yelling at him to shoot, Liddell turned, dribbled and launched a high-arcing jumper from near the free-throw line that dropped through the net with 46 seconds left to make it a two-possession game.
That gave the Buckeyes some much-needed breathing room.
“I saw there were two seconds left on the (shot) clock,” Liddell said. “I just felt like that was a huge momentum swing for us in the final minute.”
Dating to last season, Liddell has now scored in double figures in six straight games. This season, he leads the team in scoring (15.5 points per game) and rebounding (7.5 per game). Crucial for a big player, he’s also shooting 81.8% from the free-throw line.
Holtmann said he knew how Liddell would respond to his halftime challenge.
“He is one of the best kids I’ve coached,” he said. “Having said that, he took it and (the conversation) was pretty one-sided but he is a tremendous kid. He responds in those moments and, man, I was proud of him.”
It wasn’t just Liddell's scoring that affected the Fighting Irish. Holtmann challenged his entire team to play harder during the second half against a Notre Dame team that essentially had used a six-man rotation through the first two games of the season.
Ohio State would shoot 18 of its 24 free throws after halftime (Liddell was 3 for 3) and was able to foul out Irish center Juwan Durham with 8:45 to play.
Durham finished with seven points and tied for a team high with nine rebounds and had challenged Liddell during the first half. With Durham on the bench, Liddell scored 11 of his 19 points as the Buckeyes expanded the 62-61 lead they took on Walker's free throws after Durham's fifth foul.
How Liddell and the Buckeyes will fare when Big Ten play starts and players with Durham’s size (6-11, 231 pounds) are the norm is an open question.
On Tuesday night, they handled the challenge — once they played harder.