Ohio State hoops notebook: Zed Key, Gene Brown spark win against UCLA

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State's Eugene Brown shoots over Morehead State's Ta'lon Cooper during the first half in Columbus, Ohio.

CLEVELAND – Listed at 6-10, 245 pounds, Jalen Hill was proving himself to be a load for UCLA on Saturday afternoon.

Playing against an Ohio State team who had just regained the services of sophomore E.J. Liddell after a two-game absence due to mononucleosis, Hill had the ball on the block with roughly six minutes to play and the game tied at 63. The Buckeyes, who had already seen Liddell foul out a moment earlier, had freshman Zed Key attempting to body up the redshirt junior with 67 games to his credit.

Hill went up, Key blocked his shot and it started a sequence that changed the game and spurred the No. 20 Buckeyes to a 77-70 win against the Bruins inside Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse as part of the CBS Sports Classic.

Following the block, Key’s fellow freshman, Gene Brown III, buried three-pointers on back-to-back possessions to give the Buckeyes a lead they would not surrender.

Not bad for a pair of modestly rated recruits playing in the seventh games of their collegiate careers.

“Our two freshmen were outstanding,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. “What it says about those guys is they just stayed ready. Both of them stayed ready.”

Key has drawn headlines for his early play, highlighted by a double-double against Cleveland State, his first career start in last Wednesday’s Big Ten opener at Purdue and his outward bursts of enthusiasm. Brown, a wing, has been praised for his defensive versatility but entered the game against the Bruins averaging 1.8 points on 28.6 shooting (4 for 4). From three-point range, he was 2 for 11 (18.2%).

Against the Bruins, he was perfect on three three-point attempts to finish with nine points – two shy of his season total to that point.

“Honestly it was a great feeling for my teammates to trust me and allow me to get two back-to-back threes in a tight game like that,” Brown said. “It just proves we’ve been working hard together and doing all the little things through practice.”

Asked how those consecutive threes felt when they left his fingertips, Brown said, “Both felt pretty good, to be honest.”

Once he hit the second one, UCLA’s Mick Cronin called timeout as the Ohio State bench erupted in celebration with 4:27 to play.

“How critical were those two threes?” Holtmann said. “To think about the young man comes in and defends well and then makes two threes that really changed the game, honestly. I thought our guys did a great job making one more pass to him as well. That was as good a job as we’ve done all year making one-more passes.”

Senior guard CJ Walker was credited with assists on both of Brown’s second-half threes.

Key, meanwhile, had only two points at the half but was called upon in a big way during the second half. He scored nine of his 11 points after halftime and played the final 7:21 of the game, busting out the infamous “finger guns” at one point.

“I told everyone, anytime it’s an and-one, I’m doing the finger guns: ‘Just be ready, don’t laugh, it’s going to happen,’ ” he said.

On this afternoon, both players were critical. Other Buckeyes had more production – Duane Washington Jr. led the way with 14 points – but the two freshmen helped change the course of the game. From the moment Key blocked Hill, the Buckeyes closed the game with a 14-7 run to close out the win.

“It all starts on defense,” Key said of that sequence. “Defense translates to offense, so we need to get stops. The block, we were trying to rotation in transition and we got two open threes form Eugene and he knocked them down. That was definitely the turning point in the game. Those threes really helped us get ahead and shift the momentum in our favor. Really big plays by Eugene to knock down those threes.”

Liddell’s return

Friday, Holtmann said he wouldn’t know until after practice if Liddell would be available against the Bruins.

Saturday, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder through the first six games of the season was back in the starting lineup. He won the opening tip and hit a three-pointer from the top of the circle on that possession but would find tougher going after that point.

Liddell finished with nine points, three rebounds and one steal while battling foul trouble. He fouled out with 7:21 to play, setting the stage for Key’s big block.

“We had talked about a minutes restriction,” Holtmann said. “The medical staff had talked to me about it. We wanted to watch him practice (Friday). They felt like if he can play, he can play. It’s probably not smart to play him 35 minutes.”

Liddell wound up playing 19 minutes.

“He looked good in practice (Saturday),” Holtmann said. “We practiced hard, so it was good to see him play a little bit and start with that wide-open three that he made. That was great to see.”

House of pain

Kyle Young could be forgiven for never wanting to return to Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse again.

Last season, the Ohio State forward felt sick leading into a game against West Virginia four days removed from Christmas. He nearly didn’t play, but fought through the nausea and vomiting to gut out 11 rebounds in 22 minutes against an always physical Mountaineers team before learning afterward that he was actually suffering from appendicitis. Young would sit out the next two games after undergoing surgery later that night.

Saturday night, after having been removed from the starting lineup as Holtmann benched his two seniors to send a message in what would be a loss at Purdue, Young returned to the starting lineup. He finished with seven points and four rebounds in 22 minutes, but it might’ve been more if not for a shot to the mouth that knocked him out of the game for a few minutes.

As he battled for a defensive rebound during the second half, Young’s jaw came down on the top of a UCLA player in the paint. He would have to check out of the game with 16:03 to play and receive medical attention from the team’s staff, briefly returning to the locker room, before eventually returning with 11:08 to play and UCLA ahead 56-52.

He wouldn’t come out of the game again.

“He got popped in the jaw really good,” Holtmann said. “He really got popped. That’s how he plays. That’s why we love Kyle Young. He sticks his nose in those spots. Not many players are willing to do that and he is. It’s why we love watching him. It’s why he’s a fan favorite. It’s why he’s so appreciated.”

The question now is whether he’ll ever willingly return to the arena.

“This building’s not been real good to him,” Holtmann said with a laugh. “He’s a tremendous player. Tremendous fighter.”

Walker leader

Walker, Ohio State’s other senior, finished with 10 points, four assists, two rebounds and a block in 35 minutes of playing time. At Purdue on Wednesday, he had six points, seven assists, three turnovers and three rebounds in 34:45.

He’s had other, more productive games this season, but this one caught Holtmann’s eye.

“I thought CJ Walker was terrific today on both ends,” Holtmann said. “Terrific. Certainly the best performance of the year for him.”

Changes

The start of the game was affected by the football team’s inclusion in the Big Ten title game, which kicked off at noon in Indianapolis. Initially, the Buckeyes were slated to play in the first game of the doubleheader, but were switched to avoid having both teams playing at the same time.

It also apparently allowed Holtmann to watch the football game.

“First start by saying big congrats to our football program,” he said during his opening statement. “I watched that thing in my hotel room. Like anybody out there in Buckeye Nation, I was an anxious fan pulling for our Buckeyes but I had great confidence that those guys were going to play with the poise and toughness to win that thing. It’s really hard to win at a high level. Big congrats to Ryan (Day), the coaches and all the players in the entire program on that.”

History

The Buckeyes are now 4-3 all-time in the CBS Sports Classic, which also features Kentucky and North Carolina. Here’s their results to this point, with team national rankings in parenthesis:

L, 82(12)-74(24), North Carolina, Dec. 20, 2014, United Center, Chicago

W, 74-67(4), Kentucky, Dec. 19, 2015, Barclays Center, Brooklyn

L, 86(2)-73, UCLA, Dec. 17, 2016, T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas

L, 86(5)-72, North Carolina, Dec. 23, 2017, Smoothie King Center, New Orleans

W, 80(15)-66, UCLA, Dec. 22, 2018, United Center, Chicago

W, 71(5)-65(6), Kentucky, Dec. 21, 2019, T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas

Quotable

“Really, really proud of our guys. I thought it was our best performance of the year against a real quality UCLA team. They’re clearly in my mind an NCAA Tournament team. I thought we played together more. I thought we played with more poise and purpose at both ends. We certainly weren’t perfect. We gave up 18 offensive rebounds. That’s far from perfect.” – Holtmann

“When coach called me in for film we talked about when I get in there, my main goal is defense and rebound because that’s kind of what they’re lacking. Every possession in go in, I guard whoever they want me to guard and I’m crashing almost 100 percent of the time. I do those two things and on the offensive end I let everything come to me and my teammates find me.” – Brown, on his role with this team

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy