Ohio State's E.J. Liddell: Chris Holtmann's ejection in loss shows coach 'has our back'

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra

EAST LANSING, Mich. – E.J. Liddell was not the reason why No. 4 Ohio State was upset by a hungry Michigan State team on Thursday night. A lack of overall physicality, an inability to hit enough shots down the stretch and the absence of a key teammate all had their share in the defeat.

Liddell, though, was right in the center of what would help lead to Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann’s eventual ejection in what would be a 71-67 loss for the Buckeyes at the Breslin Center. Liddell would finish with a team-high 18 points, but 10 of them came from the free-throw line as he made only 4 of 13 field-goal attempts.

Many of them came with contact, and one in particular led to Holtmann’s first technical foul with 16:45 to play.

“It just showed coach Holtmann has our back,” Liddell told The Dispatch after the loss. “He’s passionate. He truly felt that things weren’t going our way so he had to use his voice a little bit more. We took that on the chin and he showed what type of coach he is. He really cares.”

After the first technical, Michigan State tied the game on a pair of Joshua Langford free throws but the Buckeyes would answer with a 9-0 run that, at the time, seemed to have them set to seal the win. When Holtmann was given the second technical foul, it came after Duane Washington Jr.’s game-tying layup rolled out and the Spartans were headed to the line with 1.4 seconds to play.

Director of professional development and former Big Ten player of the year Terence Dials hustled out to the court to help get Holtmann pointed toward the locker room before the situation escalated further.

“He’s just passionate,” senior guard CJ Walker said. “He just wants to win a game. That’s our coach. That’s what he stands for, winning. His emotions got into it. He showed his passion. He wants us to win the game and that’s what happens when you’re competitive. Your emotions get built up. It happens. It happens to the best of them. It was one of those moments his passion got the best of him.”

Holtmann didn’t say much specifically about the officiating after the game, although there were multiple head-scratching plays on both ends of the court. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo was looking for a call on E.J. Liddell where his elbow struck Thomas Kithier’s face, while Holtmann was left to lament a goaltending call that gave Michigan State two first-half points and a video review that appeared to erroneously waive off a Washington three-pointer.

It all added up to a second straight loss for the Buckeyes, marking their first losing streak of the season. It came without senior Kyle Young, who assuredly would have made some kind of difference. And Liddell personally took the blame for it, pointing to his slow start. He spent a long stretch on the bench during the first half and was on the end of at least one lecture from Holtmann during that time, and at the half the sophomore had five points on 1 for 6 shooting.

“It was very physical from the start of the game,” he said. “I felt like they were very physical also. Not going to pin anything on the refs. It was just a very physical game from the start, and we expected that coming in.”

The road gets no easier for the Buckeyes, who will end the regular season with home games against Iowa and Illinois. The No. 9 Hawkeyes, who also lost Thursday night and are battling a number of key injuries, are up first this Sunday.

Walker said it was a mostly quiet locker room, which has been the case for a while now when Ohio State goes to Michigan State. The Buckeyes haven’t won here since William Buford handed them a share of the Big Ten title with his game-winning shot back in 2012.

“Nobody likes to lose games,” he said. “We had to come together as a team. I said some things to the team that we’ve got to get better. I took it upon myself to be better as a leader. We’ve got to get better, get prepared for our next game and be ready to win that game.”

Musa Jallow replaces Kyle Young

After suffering a concussion in the loss to Michigan, Young did not make the trip with the Buckeyes and his status for the Iowa game will be known sometime Friday, Holtmann said.

Without him, fourth-year wing Musa Jallow moved into the starting lineup. Jallow had missed the Michigan game with a left ankle injury suffered in the prior game, a win at Penn State on February 18.

“I thought Musa really battled given the fact that his ankle is what it is,” Holtmann said. “I thought he really battled and tried to defend. Aaron Henry got loose a little bit but I thought he really battled. Seth (Towns) in a game like this coming back still from injuries and the kind of athletes that we were playing against and the game in general, he’ll continue to grow and move forward.”

Jallow played a season-high 32 minutes and posted an unusual stat line. He did not attempt a shot but finished with five rebounds, two assists, one steal, one turnover and four fouls while posting an individual plus-minus rating of plus-3.

In a four-point loss, Ohio State outscored Michigan State by three points during the 32 minutes that a player who didn’t take a shot was on the court.

Holtmann said Young’s absence was felt across the stat sheet.

“I think in a game like this when he can get some loose balls, be active around the rim, create some extra opportunities and provide a physicality and a live body, I thought that would be important for this game,” the coach said. “It’s unfortunate it happened in the last minute of the game the other night. We’ll hope to get him back soon enough.”

Duane Washington’s ankle

After scoring 30 in the loss to the Wolverines, Washington had 17 points on 7-of-16 shooting but only had six points after halftime. He missed all three second-half threes he took and appeared to roll his right ankle late in the game.

“He was fine,” Holtmann said.

“I wouldn’t say it was affecting him,” Walker said. “I feel like he’ll be fine. I think he rolled on somebody’s foot and he just tweaked it a little bit, but he made a shot right after and he seemed to be fine. We’ll see. He’ll be all right.”

Justin Ahrens goes missing

For an eight-game stretch, Justin Ahrens seized upon a starting spot and hit at least two three pointers in nine of 10 games for the Buckeyes. Sunday against Michigan, he was 0 for 2 and went scoreless in the loss. Thursday against the Spartans, he did not attempt a single three pointer and again went scoreless.

In his last 35 minutes, the sharpshooter has not scored a point and has missed the only three field goals he’s attempted. Against the Spartans, he tied a career high with two steals and had fast-break opportunities on each but came up empty on both. On the first, he dribbled into the paint, didn’t force a shot and wound up kicking the ball back out to the perimeter.

On the second, his layup attempt was blocked at the rim by Joshua Langford.

“He’s just getting a lot of attention,” Holtmann said of Ahrens’ lack of recent shots. “I thought he had created some things with his space. He had a couple transition baskets that he didn’t make, but not concerned about him.”

Michigan State leads stars battle

Plenty was made entering this game about how Michigan State was ranked as high as No. 4 nationally during the early part of this season. Yes, the Spartans had fallen far out of the rankings, but they were still a plenty dangerous opponent, especially given their stretch of four wins in six games entering Thursday night’s game with the Buckeyes.

Recruiting rankings aren’t an exact science, but they helped to illustrate why Michigan State has still been expected to be better even while limping to an 8-7 start and 2-7 record in Big Ten play.

Michigan State has 12 scholarship players, nine of which were four-star prospects or better according to the 247Sports.com composite rankings. Those 12 players have a combined 46 stars and an average national ranking of 89.8.

Ohio State, meanwhile, has 13 scholarship players including one, Bucknell transfer Jimmy Sotos, who was not ranked out of high school. Those 13 players have four four-star prospects. They have a combined 40 stars and, removing Sotos from the equation, an average national ranking of 157.1.

The story that never was

In the spirit of full disclosure, here’s what the lede to my game recap would have been had the Buckeyes held onto their nine-point lead.

Without one of their primary players, Ohio State entered the Breslin Center in need of contributions from just about everybody to replace Kyle Young.

That evidently included coach Chris Holtmann as well.

Seeking their first series sweep of Michigan State since the 2006-07 season, the No. 4 Buckeyes had weathered an early push from the resurgent Spartans but were clinging to a two-point lead moments into the second half when E.J. Liddell missed a shot from close-range through a barrage of contact. No call was made, but the whistle was blown as the play headed up the court.

It was on Holtmann, who was given a technical foul as he unloaded on the referees for the no-call. Joshua Langford went to the other end, hit both free throws and the game was tied at 40 with 16:45 to play.

Then the Buckeyes (19-5, 13-5 Big Ten) got a stop, scored on a Duane Washington Jr. drive and started a game-changing, 9-0 run that provided the breathing room necessary to hang on for a SCORE win against Michigan State (12-10, 6-10).

It wouldn’t be easy, and a Spartans team fighting for its postseason life wouldn’t go quietly.

Quotable

“It’s the Big Ten. They keep coming at you. We’ll figure out a way to get better. We knew we were playing a good team. They’ve got talented kids, talented players. We knew what we were getting into here. With Kyle, without Kyle, we knew what the challenge was.” – Holtmann

“Michigan State’s playing really good right now. They’re a completely different team than they were a month ago. They played a lot tougher than us towards the end of the game. They made some very tough shots at the end. They were the more aggressive team down the stretch.” – Walker

ajardy@dispatch.com

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