Notes: E.J. Liddell's big rebound, Justice Sueing's health and more as Ohio State advances
INDIANAPOLIS – Chris Holtmann had challenged his first-team all-league player with two things this week.
With Ohio State looking to snap a four-game losing streak, the coach presented sophomore forward E.J. Liddell with two facts. First, it had been four games since the big man had blocked a shot. Second, Holtmann said, Liddell hadn’t pulled down double-digit rebounds in any of his three prior games.
Thursday afternoon against upset-minded No. 13 seed Minnesota inside Lucas Oil Stadium, Liddell didn’t block a shot and finished with only five rebounds to go along with his 14 points. But the final rebound that he nabbed, and the play that immediately followed, sealed Ohio State’s ticket to a Friday rematch with Purdue after a 79-75 victory.
A 72-60 lead with 1:38 to play was on the verge of completely disappearing, and after Liddell hit a pair of free throws with eight seconds left to give the Buckeyes a 77-74 lead they opted to foul noted Buckeye-killer Marcus Carr before he could attempt a game-tying three-pointer.
The foul came with 6.8 seconds left, and after hitting the first Carr missed the second. Down on the left block, with a desperate Minnesota team fighting tooth and nail to make something happen, Liddell snatched it as maroon-colored jerseys enveloped him. With the clock ticking, and pressure coming from multiple sides, Liddell stood just shy of baseline as his momentum threatened to carry him out of bounds and give the Gophers one final gasp.
Instead, Liddell was able to spy teammate Duane Washington Jr. on the opposite side of the court and find him with the pass out of pressure. Washington was fouled with 2.6 seconds left, trotted up the court and promptly sealed the game with two free throws.
“I knew E.J. was gonna try to stay in bounds, for his life pretty much,” junior Justice Sueing said. “I thought he was going to throw the ball in the air but he was able to stay composed and not throw a pass one of the other players could intercept. He made the right play. That’s good on E.J.”
It was good on Ohio State, too, to just hang on in a game it led by as many as 14. It had been more than three weeks since it had tasted a victory despite having held second-half leads against Michigan, Michigan State and Illinois. Most recently, it was a 9-0 Fighting Illini run last Sunday that sent the Buckeyes into the postseason with the streak intact after they had missed their final 10 shots from the field.
This one looked to be far from that with 98 seconds to play before everything got squirrely. Minnesota’s 14-3 run to make it a one-point game was keyed by three three-pointers from Carr, who last season went off for 35 against the Buckeyes in one game and hit the game-winning three in the rematch. Interspersed in there were two Kyle Young free throws, Sueing going 1 for 3 from the line, CJ Walker having one shot blocked and turning it over and an offensive foul on Duane Washington Jr.
It all gave the Gophers life, until Liddell ripped that rebound down.
“It’s March,” Walker said. “You’ve got to survive and advance. Do what you have to do to win the game. We stuck together and made some tough plays at the end. We finished.”
Buckeyes finish with 15 turnovers
Ohio State got the game going with a flourish, opening up a 13-0 run against a tired-looking Minnesota team that had fended off Northwestern the night before. It started with a Washington drive and ended with a lob to Young from Washington that ended in a dunk, and the Ohio State fans in attendance were loving it.
Two possessions later, still ahead 13-0, Washington was whistled for an illegal screen. Then Sueing stepped out of bounds. Then Walker couldn’t connected on a post feed to freshman Zed Key. Finally, freshman Gene Brown was called for double dribble, giving Ohio State four turnovers on as many possessions.
Although they would never trail, it kept the Buckeyes from piling on early. They would finish with 15 turnovers, accounting for 18.9 percent of their possessions. That was the fifth-highest total for Ohio State this season and third-highest in a victory.
“I thought we turned it over just too much today, but they also do do that in league play,” Holtmann said. “It’s the best thing they do in league play. We contributed with it. We had a couple sloppy plays, a couple plays that balls dropped through our hands. No question we have to be better. We can get better.”
The Golden Gophers are 154th nationally in defensive turnover percentage and fourth in Big Ten play, per KenPom.com.
Ohio State also forced 11 Minnesota turnovers, and the Buckeyes outscored the Golden Gophers 21-19 off of them.
Justin Ahrens starts, CJ Walker back to the bench
The Buckeyes went back to one of their primary lineups against the Gophers, bringing junior Justin Ahrens back into the starting lineup and bringing Walker off the bench.
The move was at the request of the senior, who had started the last two games.
“CJ Walker asked to come off the bench a couple days ago and I told him, ‘It’s your team, senior, so if that’s your team that’s what we’ll do,’ ” Holtmann said. “It was good to see. I thought he gave us some really critical plays there. The one he probably should’ve pulled it out late (that was blocked), but I thought he was really good and really helped us.”
In 30 minutes, Walker finished with 10 points, a game-high six assists and a career-high-tying six rebounds. Ahrens had three rebounds, two minutes and some solid defense in 18 minutes.
Musa Jallow’s breakout evening
He’s been limited with an ankle injury during the last few weeks, but fourth-year junior Musa Jallow made the most of his opportunity against the Golden Gophers. He was perfect on four field-goal attempts, finishing with eight points, a rebound and an assist in only 12 minutes.
“I thought he was terrific,” Holtmann said. “He just played his role at a really high level. He was active defensively. Got to where he needed to. We needed his defense, we needed his activity, especially with Kyle’s two (first-half) fouls.”
He was part of a balanced offensive attack. Washington and Sueing led the Buckeyes with 16 points each while Liddell had 14 and Young had 11.
It’s Young’s first double-digit scoring game since he had 18 at Maryland on February 8 and more than he had scored (10) in his prior three games combined. Jallow’s eight points are tied for the second-most he’s had all season, just shy of his nine-point game at Penn State on February 18 – Ohio State’s last win, and a game in which he injured his left ankle.
“The good thing about our team is we have a lot of weapons, a lot of good players,” Sueing said. “Everyone has their strengths and we play off each other pretty well, so everyone is ready to step up and make plays. We saw that tonight and it allowed us to get this win.”
Justice Sueing’s status
Saturday against Illinois, Sueing finished with 15 points while playing 34:17 in the loss. Wednesday, Holtmann told reporters that Sueing, who has been dealing with a groin injury, had undergone an unspecified procedure Sunday. He returned to practice Wednesday for some light work, but was expected to be full-go for the Gophers.
He played 30 minutes in the win.
“I’ve been having some nagging injuries,” Sueing said. “My medical staff made sure I get my rehab in so I’m able to come out here and perform. That’s all I’ve got to say about that.”
“It’s definitely a concern. The reality is you’re trying to do everything you can to mitigate risk. Our guys have done a great job with that. We’ve not been hit with COVID much, so that does probably leave you a little more susceptible later in the year so we have to make sure we’re following every protocol.” – Holtmann, when asked about staying healthy in the postseason after a positive test shut down Duke’s season.
“It feels amazing. Very happy. Very satisfied with my team today. Of course we’ve got to improve in some areas. I’m trying to build from here, go into the next day, win a great game.” – Walker, on the feeling of the win.
“It’s March and I feel like Minnesota, they play hard. Once they started feeling it, they started to hit some really tough shots. I’m more proud of my guys being able to stick together, especially losing our last few games of the season. Being able to carry out this win, it means a lot.” – Sueing