Without E.J. Liddell, Ohio State leans on CJ Walker, Zed Key to hold off Cleveland State

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State Buckeyes guard CJ Walker (13) is guarded by Cleveland State Vikings guard Yahel Hill (2) during the first half of Sunday's NCAA Division I basketball game at Value City Arena in Columbus, Oh. on December 13, 2020.

The mystery that is this Ohio State men’s basketball team took on an added wrinkle Sunday afternoon at Value City Arena.

Playing without leading scorer and rebounder E.J. Liddell, who is out indefinitely with mononucleosis, the Buckeyes had to get creative. In a season that has already seen coach Chris Holtmann mix and match more than at any point during his first three seasons, bumps are to be expected.

They materialized in the form of an uneven, sometimes nervy 67-61 Ohio State win in a game played in front of no fans.

Ohio State notebook: Zed Key impresses, Meechie Johnson Jr. arrives and more

The Buckeyes (5-0) wouldn’t be able to put the Vikings (0-3) until the latter stages of the second half despite opening up an 11-point lead during the first two minutes.

A 9-1 Cleveland State run pulled the visitors within a point at 38-37, and they had a chance to take the lead after Ohio State senior guard CJ Walker was stripped on the next possession but Torrey Patton’s go-ahead attempt from right at the rim didn’t fall. Junior forward Justin Ahrens hit his first three-pointer of the game on the next possession to provide some breathing room with 13:21 to play.

Cleveland State would pull within two again at 41-39 three possessions later, and after Patton took a charge on Ohio State guard Jimmy Sotos would have a chance to tie or take the lead. Freshman center Mabor Majak was whistled for three seconds in the key, negating the chance, and Walker hit a three from just left of the top of the circle on the next possession.

From there, the Vikings would never again have the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead.

Duane Washington Jr. led the Buckeyes with 17 points while Walker had 16 and was perfect on five free-throw attempts. Freshman Zed Key, who was scoreless in only two minutes during Tuesday's 90-85 win at Notre Dame, finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds for his first career double-double. 

Early, it looked to be the expected cakewalk for Ohio State. Washington Jr. hit a three-pointer on the opening possession, then another two possessions later, and the Vikings would not make a field goal for the first 5:34 of the game. And yet, when they did, it pulled them within 8-4 because the Buckeyes were unable to get much offensive flow going against a team that allowed a 40-0 run to Ohio University one week ago.

That would remain the case. Cleveland State substituted liberally, harassed Ohio State’s ball handlers and forced them into six first-half turnovers and seemingly a dozen balls tipped away. Without Liddell, Ohio State endured a drought of 4:48 without a field goal that was finally broken with 2:27 left in the half on a Musa Jallow layup that gave the Buckeyes a 28-22 lead.

Without Liddell, Ahrens made his first start of the season and his first since the 30th game of his freshman season. It was a lineup previously unused by the Buckeyes this season.

The game marked the unofficial unveiling of Meechie Johnson Jr. a guard who graduated early from Garfield Heights, Ohio, reclassified to the 2020 recruiting class and officially joined the Buckeyes on Saturday. He watched the game from the bench, one chair away from Harvard graduate transfer Seth Towns, who remains on the verge of his Ohio State debut.

Ohio State has now won 11 straight games against in-state competition. Its last loss was a 60-59 defeat to Dayton in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on March 20, 2014.