Notes: E.J. Liddell, Seth Towns help Ohio State hoops to road win against Illinois
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – E.J. Liddell’s home state provided him with plenty of motivation for Saturday’s game, but not in the way you would probably expect.
A native of Belleville, Illinois, the Ohio State sophomore forward picked the Buckeyes from a list of three finalists that included Illinois. As a freshman, Liddell posted his first career double-double as No. 19 Ohio State defeated the No. 23 Fighting Illini, 71-63, on senior day. One season later, Liddell took top billing in his first game at the State Farm Center, pouring in a career-high 26 points as the No. 21 Buckeyes led No. 14 Illinois for 38:02 in an 87-81 win.
It wasn’t any sense of retribution toward the Illinois program that motivated Liddell, however. It was a lingering feeling of disappointment from Ohio State’s last game, an 81-71 win against Northwestern three days prior.
Although he pulled down 10 rebounds, Liddell didn’t connect on a field goal and finished with a season-low six points. And yes, that was on his mind when he got started with a deep jumper and then a three-pointer against 7-foot sophomore center Kofi Cockburn.
Ohio State hoops:Video: Ohio State breaks down 87-81 win at Illinois
“I just felt like it’s my home-state school, but that’s not what motivated me today,” Liddell said. “It was my teammates. I felt like I needed to do more to help us win today. I didn’t have the best game against Northwestern and that’s why they stayed in it most of the time. I felt like today I did everything I could for my teammates.
“Today it was scoring and that’s how we got the win.”
Liddell’s scoring was split evenly among the halves. He was 5 for 8 from the floor in each half but, most notably, buried four three-pointers, three of which came during the first half as Ohio State pushed its lead as high as 18 points.
He entered the game 3 for 18 (16.7%) from three for the season and 8 for 44 (18.2%) for his career. As Ohio State turned a 15-all tie into a 30-15 lead with a 15-0 run, Liddell scored the final eight points himself on a jumper over Cockburn and then a pair of three-pointers.
The three straight made jumpers came after Liddell had missed three straight shots.
“We talked a little bit after the game against Northwestern because I thought he let some of those missed shots affect him in ways he shouldn’t be affected by,” coach Chris Holtmann said. “I thought he came back hungry. He’s got to stay aggressive, even if he misses some open looks.”
Ohio State basketball:E.J. Liddell flourishing as freshman season progresses
Earlier in the season, Liddell said he grew up a Kobe Bryant fan and when he lets off a jumper he yells, “Kobe!” in the back of his head. His 16 field-goal attempts today were a career-high.
How many times did he yell Bryant’s name in his head?
“Probably all 16 times I shot, honestly,” he said with a smile.
Some of his shooting was the result of taking what the defense was giving him. Some of it came from a desire to stretch the Illinois defense and allow frontcourt mate Kyle Young to have some more room to work with down low. It helped the Buckeyes to a 7-for-11 effort from deep during the first half as they built a lead that would be tested late.
The win is the kind of win that will make the country take notice of what Ohio State has going. The Buckeyes have now won three straight, two of which came on the road against top-15 teams. The game came at noon on a Saturday, a prime viewing window to draw in both avid and casual fans. What they saw was Liddell taking control early and often, and he remains second on the team in scoring at 14.3 points per game after averaging 6.7 as a freshman.
This won’t be the norm for Liddell, Holtmann cautioned. Teams will continue to plan for him, and Purdue in particular (which comes to Value City Arena on Tuesday) will make it tough for Liddell to catch the ball and operate in the side-post areas where he often excels.
But it’s another sign of growth for the player who grew up less than three hours from the arena where he dominated Saturday.
“Northwestern’s mobility and their trapping on side post-ups made it difficult for E.J. and his length,” Holtmann said. “That combined with the fact that he’s now at the top of the scouting report, it’s too much to ask him to perform elite offensively like he was today in every game. Rebounding, offensive rebounding, defensively, he’s got to continue to grow in impacting the game in other ways. That’s what good players do.”
Justice Sueing, Duane Washington close it out
With 59.8 seconds to play, Ohio State held a 77-72 lead and had Justice Sueing going to the line for a pair of free throws. He hit the second, pushing the lead to six points and setting up a frenetic final minute of gameplay that took at least 10 minutes of real time.
The two teams combined for 12 total possessions during those final seconds, trading fouls, free throws and dicey possessions as Illinois tried to fight back and Ohio State refused to give in. The Buckeyes would make their final nine free throws to keep Illinois from ever holding the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead.
After Sueing’s free throw, Liddell hit one of two with 47.9 seconds left as Ohio State led 75-74. With 31.9 seconds left, Sueing hit two free throws after a foul by Adam Miller that was reviewed to see if the Ohio State forward had led with his elbow. That made it 81-76.
With 23.9 seconds left, Trent Frazier fouled Duane Washington Jr. An 88.6% free-throw shooter this season, Washington came out after the Northwestern game in full uniform to practice a few more after he surprisingly missed two in the final moments of that win. In this game, he hit both here to give Ohio State an 83-78 lead.
Then came the final dramatics. Washington took the inbounds pass with Illinoi within 83-81 and stepped incredibly close to the baseline before being fouled by Frazier. Illinois coach Brad Underwood was irate, calling that Washington had stepped out of bounds, but the officials awarded him the free throws and he sunk them both with 13.7 second left.
Musa Jallow would close the run with two more free throws with two seconds left to set the final score. As the officials made their way off the floor, Underwood yelled a few words at them.
“It takes a lot of things (to close a game out) but ultimately a lot of games are going to come down to the wire, especially in the Big Ten,” graduate transfer Seth Towns said. “We’re going to continue to see a lot of really close games. It’s gonna take having the wherewithal to finish games, to come up big in the clutch. They went on a run and fought back hard but we didn’t give in.”
The injured CJ Walker, who missed a third straight game with torn ligaments in his right hand, was vocal and active in those final huddles as the teams would combine to take four timeouts.
“CJ’s a huge part of our team and we can’t wait to get him back,” Towns said. “Shout out to him, he’s doing a really good job. These are the things players don’t get much credit for, but he’s like a coach on the sidelines. He’s still finding ways to contribute to this team.”
Holtmann credited his role as an assistant coach, saying he’s well on his way to being a successful coach one day. Before the game, Walker did go through some light shooting and dribbling by himself while wearing the same protective wrap/brace on his injured right hand.
He’s 42 for 43 (97.7%) from the free-throw line this season, and his presence would have certainly been helpful as the Illini pressured a Buckeyes team relying on transplanted forward Sueing and early enrollee freshman Meechie Johnson Jr. to battle the full-court press.
“We missed his ball handling and his ability to get to spots, but Justice did some good things,” Holtmann said. “I know he had five turnovers but he did some good things. I think they wore us down a little bit with their pressure, he and Duane, but maybe as much as anything the way was a couple of those transition threes Justin hit against their press when we threw it over the top.”
Ohio State won despite 3-for-10 shooting for Washington, who finished with 11 points.
Seth Towns makes an impact
As Towns worked to return from two missed seasons due to knee injuries, Holtmann continually advised against expecting too much, too soon from the Harvard graduate transfer. In addition, Holtmann pointed out that progress would not be a straight, upward line for Towns.
Wednesday against the Wildcats, Towns was on the court for only 2:32 and did not score, giving him a total of four points in his previous three games after back-to-back 11-point efforts.
Against Illinois, Towns scored eight points in the first half and three in the second to finish with 11.
“I’m not sure I could give a percentage,” he said when asked how healthy he feels. “It is really up and down, especially as the season progresses and we play as many games as we’re playing. I know that I can advance and progress a lot more than where I’m currently at. Obviously looking forward to improving my health every day and improving my game back to form.”
He had a key second-half turnaround play as well. After airballing a three from the right wing, Towns raced back downcourt, stole the ball and then scored while drawing a foul at the other end. He hit the free throw with 10:28 left to give Ohio State a 62-48 lead and deliver a body-blow to the Illini.
“That’s a big part of basketball, staying ready and being prepared for the next play, having a short memory,” Towns said. “That’s something our team has done a good job of embracing.”
“Illinois plays with great competitive spirit so you knew you were going to get tested physically and mentally. To have that and go through that, we missed some critical free throws, we made some late, that is a good thing for our group.” – Holtmann
“Another man down, somebody’s going to step up. We’ve got two great guards down. We just keep piggybacking on each other, having each other’s back. Everybody is going to step up when they’re needed, if it’s extra effort plays or getting on the floor or getting a steal.” – Liddell
“We’ve made a ton of progress as a team, chemistry-wise and so on. You see Meechie already making huge contributions to the team. My health improving. So many people coming into form. The chemistry is probably the biggest thing. We’re finding each other where we like our spots to be and you see so many guys on the team coming alive because of it.” – Towns