Stepping in for E.J. Liddell's, Zed Key blossoms in Ohio State basketball victory

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State forward Zed Key didn't start in place of E.J. Liddell, but the freshman came off the bench for 12 points and 10 rebounds in the Buckeyes' 67-61 victory over Cleveland State on Sunday.

Before the No. 22 Ohio State took the court to host Cleveland State on Sunday, E.J. Liddell had some simple advice for freshman Zed Key.

In short, the sophomore urged Key to be himself, play with energy and let the game come to him. With Liddell about to miss his first game while dealing with mononucleosis, it was an open question who would replace the production of Ohio State’s leading scorer and rebounder through the first four basketball games of the season.

In a closer-than-anticipated, 67-61 win against the Vikings at Value City Arena, Key brought his first career double-double, a needed element of physicality and, of course, his finger guns that blazed in celebration after a first-half three-point play.

More:Freshman Zed Key bringing energy, 'finger guns' to Ohio State men's basketball

“Just come in and play hard,” Key said of his impact. “That’s what the coaches expect from all of us. Embrace it, come into the game and just play your butt off. Make effort plays and grab rebounds and the offensive side will come.”

He didn’t do it as a starter. Liddell’s place in that lineup was filled by junior forward Justin Ahrens, allowing Justice Sueing to slide down to power forward and Kyle Young to remain at center.

Key scored six points and pulled down five rebounds in both halves to finish with 12 points and 10 rebounds. It was one game after Liddell set career highs with 19 points and 12 rebounds in a 90-85 win at Notre Dame, a game in which Key had only two minutes of scoreless playing time.

He also helped pick up the Sunday slack as leading available scorers Duane Washington Jr. and Sueing combined to shoot 7 for 22 (31.8%) from the floor and 2 for 9 (22.2%) from three-point range while combining for 26 points.

Cleveland State brought a physical game that the Buckeyes struggled to match. It was a thread OSU coach Chris Holtmann kept picking at during his postgame news conference.

Listed at 6 feet 9, 240 pounds, Key was able to bring some of that right at the Vikings, who committed 27 team fouls and had all 10 players who saw at least nine minutes of playing time pick up at least one foul.

Key helped negate some of that aggression. In addition to the points and rebounds, the freshman had a career-high three blocks and two assists and also recorded his first career steal.

“He creates space for people to drive,” said senior guard CJ Walker, who finished with 16 points for a second straight game. “He also can finish around the basket. Defensive rebounding. He had a couple blocks we needed. He’s just really good for us. He’s a good backup for E.J. He plays hard and gives us energy.”

Liddell’s status going forward remains in flux. On his Monday radio show, Holtmann described the sophomore as “day-to-day” while reiterating the belief that Liddell might already have reached at least the midpoint of the illness. He did not definitively rule Liddell out for Wednesday’s Big Ten opener at Purdue.

“I thought Zed was great,” Holtmann said after the game. “Protected the rim, impacted shots. I thought that was maybe his biggest impact, and he brought physicality. I thought he was tremendous and certainly earned this moment.”

The challenge will only increase from here. Purdue has the tallest player in Division I, a 7-4 freshman named Zach Edey, as well as a 6-10 battering ram of a power forward in Trevion Williams.

After playing four of their first five games against teams ranked below No. 200 in the KenPom.com national rankings, the Buckeyes have just one currently on the schedule against a team outside of the top 69: a Dec. 30 home date with No. 115 Nebraska.

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy