Malaki Branham's big decision leads to Zed Key's winning basket for Ohio State

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

It took three specific actions in the span of six seconds made by a trio of relative newbies to help Ohio State snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat.

With Akron ahead 66-65 and 6.0 seconds showing on the game clock, the Buckeyes called timeout to discuss a plan. What happened next culminated in a right-handed layup with 0.3 seconds left that gave No. 17 Ohio State a 67-66 win in a game that featured five lead changes during the final five minutes.

Ohio State Buckeyes guard Malaki Branham (22) makes a pass over Akron Zips forward Enrique Freeman (25) that set up the buzzer-beater by forward Zed Key during the final seconds of the men's basketball game on Nov. 10. Ohio State won 67-66 as a result of the final possession.

Those final six seconds, though, sucked all of the wind out of Zed Key’s lungs after he hit the game-winning shot.

“It was exciting,” the second-year center said. “I couldn’t breathe. I was out on the court and I couldn’t breathe. When we got back to the huddle I was hyperventilating because I didn’t breathe the whole play. It was really exciting. I still can’t breathe.”

Ohio State had just taken the lead at 65-62 with 22 seconds left when Key put back a miss from first-year guard Malaki Branham when, 16 seconds later, Akron’s Ali Ali hit a 3-pointer from in front of his team’s bench while being fouled by E.J. Liddell. It was Liddell’s fifth, and when Ali finished off the four-point play Ohio State needed a prayer. Or, more precisely, a few.

After calling timeout, assistant coach Ryan Pedon told coach Chris Holtmann to have second-year guard Meechie Johnson push the ball up the court and call timeout past midcourt. He did, and with 3.2 seconds left the Buckeyes drew up a play to give Branham a choice to make. Taking the inbounds pass from fourth-year wing Justin Ahrens between the right wing and the top of the circle, the player making his collegiate debut had options.

He could shoot. He could drive. Or, he could look down low for his teammate on the right block. He picked the latter, Key scored and mayhem ensued in the first game of the season at Value City Arena.

Ohio State Buckeyes guard Malaki Branham (22) dribbles past Akron Zips forward Ali Ali (24) during the first half of the NCAA men's basketball game at Value City Arena in Columbus on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021.

“We’ve seen glimpses of that with Malaki,” Holtmann said. “We’ve talked as a coaching staff that the ball may need to be in his hands late particularly as Justice gets healthier. As much as anything, in those situations, you’re looking for guys that can get to their spots against physical pressure and he can get to his spots pretty well.”

It was Branham’s third assist of the game, tying him for the team lead. He saw 24:19 of playing time, the most among Ohio State’s reserves and more than Johnson, who started. Branham finished with seven points, six rebounds, three assists, a steal and a turnover while playing all but 5:49 of the second half with the game hanging in the balance.

His driving layup with 1:27 to play pushed Ohio State ahead, 63-62, but no play was bigger than the last one.

“Coach was saying be poised and run the play,” Key said of that final timeout before his game-winner. “Don’t get rattled. We executed and it led to a big shot. Malaki made that great pass and it led to me making the game-winning layup. Without that pass, I don’t know what would happen. That was a big moment from Malaki. I applaud him. He’s really good.”

Holtmann made sure to praise Johnson for his speed dribbling, allowing the Buckeyes to get the ball across midcourt with enough time to execute a final action.

The Buckeyes had to do that without Liddell, their star, who led everyone in points (25) and rebounds (11) and tied for the game-high in assists (three). His foul that led to the four-point play was his fifth, removing the only consistent offensive threat for the Buckeyes at the most crucial point of the game. Reduced to a cheerleader, Liddell said he was confident in his teammates.

“I knew we was gonna pull it out,” he said. “I was on the sideline like, ‘Damn, I just fouled after a 3-point shot. I can’t let that happen.’ I knew the guys we had out on the floor was gonna make a good decision, coach was gonna make the right call and they executed well. We’ve been working on situation things like that in practice.

That final lineup consisted of Johnson, Ahrens, Branham, Key and fifth-year Penn State transfer Jamari Wheeler.

Justice Sueing plays, Kyle Young doesn’t

After both missed last Monday’s exhibition game against the University of Indianapolis, fifth-year forward Justice Sueing returned to the lineup but classmate Kyle Young did not. Young could make his season debut either Friday against Niagara or Monday against Bowling Green as he works his way back from a vestibular dysfunction, but Sueing showed plenty of rust in his return.

In 14:30 off the bench, Sueing went 1 for 7 from the floor and finished with three rebounds, two points and one turnover. One of the nation’s best at getting to the free-throw line, Sueing did not get there once against the Zips. He sat for the final 11:31 and was subbed out after he airballed a 3-pointer with Ohio State’s lead at 44-41.

Expected to be one of the team’s leading scorers and contributors, Sueing continues to work back from a groin injury that hampered him during the postseason last year and has lingered.

“Guys, he’s not the same player right now,” Holtmann said. “He will get there. He’s just not there right now, and it shouldn’t be expected. I’m not going to go into great detail. I think he’ll get there. He’s just not there right now, and it’s not the kid’s fault. He’s trying, but we really need him.”

Liddell reminded reporters that Sueing was spending timeouts during the Big Ten and then NCAA Tournament with a heat pack on his groin in order to stay loose enough to play.

“He took a minute off because after that last game last season he was trying to recover from that injury the whole time,” Liddell said. “Right now he’s still recovering. He’s just got to get back into rhythm, get into the flow and he’ll be back soon.”

Backcourt missing

Sueing’s limitations and Young’s absence were particularly felt because the Buckeyes got little production from their revamped backcourt. After losing CJ Walker and Duane Washington to professional careers, Ohio State’s starting guards of Wheeler and Johnson both went 0 for 3 from the floor and scored six points from the free-throw line.

Johnson, making his first career start, pulled down five rebounds and had two turnovers and two steals. He was not credited with a shot attempt inside the 3-point line. Wheeler, a defense-first guard, missed all of his shots from inside the arc and had two rebounds, one assist and a steal in 28:38.

“I just think it’s a work in progress right now,” Holtmann said of his backcourt. “Meechie had some really good moments. He was able to get to the rim a few times. He’s going to be, if he just commits to getting better, he’s going to be a different player in January. I really believe that with him. He just has to stay with it. There’s going to be games like this. Same thing with Jamari. He’s still figuring out all our expectations for him offensively. I thought the ball found him too much late in the clock and we’ve got to clean that up.”

Fifth-year Louisiana transfer Cedric Russell saw 3:50 of playing time during the first half. He did not record a shot, was beaten twice off the dribble and called for fouls and otherwise did not record a statistic. Fifth-year guard Jimmy Sotos did not see any playing time.

Ohio history

In-state foes were able to hand Ohio State a few lumps in the early 1990s. As hard as it is to imagine now, the Buckeyes suffered a four-game losing streak against in-state opponents that started at the end of the 1992-93 season and lasted until the 1995-96 season.

On March 17, 1993, Miami (Ohio) handed Ohio State a 56-53 loss in the opening round of the NIT at St. John Arena. The Buckeyes had beaten Ohio, Bowling Green and Wright State earlier that season by a combined 63 points, but they would not beat another Ohio team until Dec. 2, 1995, when they beat Cleveland State at home, 75-52.

In between, Ohio State lost all three games against in-state teams during the 1994-95 season. It started with the season opener, when Ohio came to St. John Arena and won, 78-67, on November 16, 1994. A month and a day later, the Buckeyes played Cleveland State at Cleveland’s Gund Arena and lost, 75-73, on Dec. 17. They would return home five days later to host Bowling Green, but things would go no better and the Falcons left with a 59-50 win.

Since then, Ohio State entered the 2021-22 season with a 29-2 record against in-state schools. The two losses came at Toledo, 64-63, on Dec. 5, 1998, and a first-round NCAA Tournament game against Dayton, 60-59, on March 20, 2014.

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 – 9,839 days ago. Their last season-opening loss came Nov. 21, 2003: a 76-65 defeat at San Francisco.

The last loss in a home season opener was November 16, 1999, when Notre Dame knocked off No. 4 Ohio State, 59-57.

Akron has never beaten a Big Ten team in a road game since joining Division I for the 1980-81 season.

John Groce, Chris Holtmann share emotional night

Tuesday was more than a season-opening game for the Ohio State and Akron coaches. College teammates at Taylor University, Groce and Holtmann were both coaching their first game since their legendary coach, Paul Patterson, passed away in September.

Ohio State basketball:After loss of their coach, Chris Holtmann and John Groce prepare for emotional opener

A contingent of about 200 Taylor fans were on hand for the game. Both coaching staffs wore pins to raise awareness for the Alzheimer’s Association after Patterson battled the disease for roughly the last two years of his life.

“He had a big influence on Chris and I,” Groce said. “I know he’s smiling down. His and Chris’s smiles are probably a little wider than mine. It was not (just another game). Let’s be honest.”

Asked about the emotions of the day, Holtmann choked up and could only muster a few words while fighting back tears.

“John’s a dear friend,” he said. “Yeah. I would’ve loved to have coach (Patterson) here tonight.”

By the numbers

28.6% - Ohio State’s 3-point shooting percentage

20.0% - Ohio State’s 3-point shooting percentage without counting Ahrens, who went 2 for 4

5 – Akron’s assist total

50.0% - percentage of Ohio State’s missed shots that it collected for offensive rebounds


“I think our physicality needs to get better, particularly on the glass. That needs to get a lot better. There were some plays defensively where we left our feet too much. We were undisciplined, and that’s on me. The four-point play late I thought we could’ve handled a little better, but I thought EJ was a warrior all night.” – Holtmann

“Yeah, Shaq’s my favorite big man for a reason.” – Liddell, on his free-throw shooting

“He made really big plays. A couple tough buckets down the stretch. He didn’t look scared. He looked like he belonged out there. I praise him for that. Made a great pass and didn’t turn the ball over.” – Key, on Branham