Buckeyes E.J. Liddell, Gene Brown triumph over prolific Malaki Branham in summer league

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch
Buckeyes (from left to right) Malaki Branham, Gene Brown and E.J. Liddell all had big games Sunday in the Kingdom Summer League at Northside Christian School.

Gene Brown lobbed the type of jab that only a teammate would take the right way.

Playing in the Kingdom Summer League Sunday, the second-year Ohio State guard was matched up against first-year counterpart Malaki Branham. With Brown’s team liberally deploying double teams and pressure, Branham saw Brown trying to jump him for a steal and passed the ball out of danger.

It earned Branham a four-letter word from Brown.

“He called me soft,” Branham said with a smile.

One possession later, Branham took a pass near the same spot in the backcourt, spun toward the middle and flew down the lane to slam home a thunderous, one-handed dunk with his right hand. It was the exclamation point on Branham's triple-double. He recorded 36 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists in a 145-141 loss.

“That next play next, I had to show him I’m not soft, so I dunked it,” Branham said. “It’s just cool, friendly competition.”

In the final week of the league's regular season, the blue team — featuring Buckeyes E.J. Liddell and Brown — needed to score a certain number of points and win the game in order to qualify for the playoffs. They ended up accomplishing this by keeping the game up-tempo with lots of full-court pressure.

It proved another lesson for Branham as he prepares for his first season with the Buckeyes.

“Malaki’s a really good player," Liddell said. "He’s been coming out here dropping 40-balls (in this league). Our coach told us not to let him drop one.”

Brown, in particular, took that personally. The two have been battling each other during practices this summer, and the second-year player said he was hoping for more opportunities to go at him one-on-one.

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“I really wanted to get out here and go at it,” Brown said.

Branham has twice reached the 40-point mark this summer. On this night, he opened the game by beating Brown off the dribble for a layup and finished 15-for-26 from the floor, 4-for-12 from three and perfect on two free-throw attempts.

Meanwhile, Brown showed off some of his natural athleticism. He finished with 14 points on 6-of-12 shooting and added at least three steals. Moments into the game, Brown threw down a dunk, then followed that up with a transition, pull-up three pointer a moment later. He had a steal-and-slam during the third quarter, picking the pocket of an opposing guard, and fed Liddell for an and-one during the fourth quarter.

Oh, and he blocked Branham once, too, on a pull-up jumper attempt.

“I love it,” Brown said of going against Branham. “He’s competitive. He doesn’t talk trash too much, but he’s gonna let you know he’s getting the job done. I like competing with him.”

Befitting a first-team All-Big Ten player, Liddell was borderline unstoppable whenever he got the ball on the block or in the paint. After putting off a chance at a professional career for a third year at Ohio State, Liddell was 9-for-16 from the floor and finished with 30 points, eight rebounds, four assists and two blocks. He was 2-for-8 from three and 10-for-11 from the free-throw line.

“It was fun for a while and then I kind of got bored,” he said. “It was just lots and lots of shots, no defense really. It was fine getting a sweat out, out here playing with Gene.”

The game also gave Liddell another chance to work on his perimeter game. He said a primary goal for the night was to get comfortable in situations that have typically made him uncomfortable, citing step-back jumpers and growing his all-around game outside of the paint.

Second-year Ohio State guard Meechie Johnson Jr. arrived just before the end of the first quarter to watch his teammates. During the third quarter, he chastised Liddell for a dunk he did little to prevent.

“Yeah, that was on me,” Liddell said from the court, raising his arm in acknowledgement with a smirk as Johnson shook his head.

When it was over, the temporary enemies greeted each other in the postgame handshake line. It was back to all being Buckeyes again.

Brown battling back from COVID-19

Brown told The Columbus Dispatch that he had to be hospitalized twice this offseason for a total of 17 days after he was hit with COVID-19, strep throat and a sinus infection all at the same time. As a result, the Georgia native is remaining in Columbus the rest of this summer in order to work on his conditioning. Ohio State players were given the option to return home starting last week with on-campus workouts set to resume later this month when fall classes begin. 

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy