Zed Key's basket at the buzzer helps Buckeyes to shake off Akron upset

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

Chris Holtmann trotted out some well-trod coachspeak as No. 17 Ohio State prepared to open the season with Akron.

On numerous preseason occasions, the Buckeyes coach called the Zips the toughest opponent Ohio State would open a season against during his five years with the program. He would be proven right, right up until the final horn.

Ohio State Buckeyes forward Zed Key (23) celebrates making a buzzer beater with forward Justin Ahrens (10) to give the Buckeyes a 67-66 win over the Akron Zips in the NCAA men's basketball game at Value City Arena in Columbus on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021.

A Zed Key layup with 0.3 seconds left gave Ohio State (1-0) a 67-66 win against Akron (0-1) in a stunner at Value City Arena.

"It was exciting," Key said. "I couldn’t breathe."

Ohio State-Akron: Malaki Branham's big decision leads to Zed Key's winning basket

Key's putback of a Malaki Branham driving miss with 22.4 seconds left had given Ohio State a 65-62 lead, but Ali Ali hit a three with 6.0 seconds left to tie the game. He was fouled by E.J. Liddell, then hit the free throw and gave the Zips a 66-65 lead.

Ohio State called timeout, Meechie Johnson pushed the ball upcourt and called timeout with 3.2 seconds left to set up the final shot. With Liddell on the bench, having fouled out, Key took a pass from Branham on the block and scored right before the buzzer to shake off the upset.

E.J. Liddell, Zed Key crucial in avoiding upset

Key finished with 14 points on 7-of-11 shooting and scored six of his team's final eight points. Liddell led the Buckeyes with 25 points, 11 rebounds and three assists but lamented his 4-for-8 effort from the free-throw line.

Ohio State Buckeyes forward Zed Key (23) hits a buzzer beater Akron Zips forward Ali Ali (24) to give the Buckeyes a 67-66 win in the NCAA men's basketball game at Value City Arena in Columbus on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021.

"Shaq's my favorite big man for a reason," he said with a laugh.

Ohio State has now won 18 straight season openers and 19 straight openers when played at home. The Buckeyes have won 25 straight games against Ohio teams in Columbus; the last such loss came December 22, 1994, when Bowling Green won, 59-50.

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The Buckeyes leaned heavily on Key and Liddell early to build a 15-point lead, but Akron put together a run sandwiching halftime that flipped the game. With Ohio State ahead 35-21 and 2:09 left in the first half, the Zips closed with a 7-1 run to pull within 36-28 at the break. They picked right up where they left off to open the second, scoring on their first three possessions to pull even at 36, forcing Holtmann to call timeout with 18:21 to play.

With each make, the Zips were able to set their press and throw off Ohio State’s offensive rhythm. It took Liddell to break the cycle with a pair of drives, helping Ohio State reclaim the lead at 40-36. They would still be ahead, 59-57, when Akron’s Ali Ali hit a 3-pointer to reclaim the lead with 4:02 to play.

Down 62-59, Key threw down a slam to cut it to a one-point deficit and first-year guard Branham scored on a drive to reclaim the lead with 1:27 left to set up a frantic finish.

"I thought we had a game full of some really good moments from some of our guys," Holtmann said. "I thought we were tested. You’ve got a new backcourt, you’ve got some young guys and you really debate in the offices whether you want to play a quality mid-major like this in the first few games."

Buckeyes hampered by illness, injury

Kyle Young, who has been dealing with a vestibular dysfunction and missed the team’s closed scrimmage against Ole Miss and public exhibition against the University of Indianapolis, did not play but is likely to make his season debut either Friday against Niagara or next Monday against Bowling Green.

Justice Sueing, who also missed the Indianapolis exhibition with a groin injury, did return to action but came off the bench. The Buckeyes started a lineup of Jamari Wheeler, Meechie Johnson Jr., Justin Ahrens, Liddell and Key. For Wheeler and Johnson, it marked their first starts at Ohio State. Sueing struggled in particular, going 1 for 7 from the floor and finishing with two points while looking out of sorts.

It was Liddell who settled things after a nervy opening stretch for the Buckeyes, who fell behind 8-4 early and did not take the lead until Ahrens buried a 3-pointer to make it 11-8 with 13:03 left in the first half. With the Zips within 20-17, Liddell hit a 3-pointer with 6:58 left to start a personal run.

Two possessions later, he hit a tough mid-range jumper with a defender in his face. The next possession, it was a free throw, then a slam off a Zed Key miss. When first-year guard Malaki Branham followed with his first career points on a finger roll, the lead was up to 30-19 and Akron called timeout. The lead would stretch to 35-21 with 2:19 left in the half, but Akron would come roaring back.



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