Beyond Malaki Branham, Buckeyes look for better backcourt play after opener
It had been nearly 10,000 days since Ohio State suffered the type of defeat that was staring it in the face.
In the season opener Tuesday night at Value City Arena, the No. 17 Buckeyes trailed Akron by one point with exactly six seconds to play. Moments before, Ohio State's leading scorer and rebounder, E.J. Liddell, had fouled out while defending Zips guard Ali Ali on a successful 3-point try. Ali's made free throw marked the eighth lead change in a back-and-forth game, and it put Akron in a position to become the first Ohio team to beat the Buckeyes on their home court since Bowling Green on Dec. 22, 1994 — a 59-50 Falcons win, which had been played 9,839 prior.
To stave it off, a veteran Ohio State team put its fate in the hands of two of its least-experienced players.
They came through. Zed Key scored with 0.3 seconds left and the Buckeyes (1-0) survived a fierce upset challenge from Akron (0-1), 67-66, as a crowd of 11,947 roared.
“I thought we had a game full of some really good moments from some of our guys,” coach Chris 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.”
With Liddell (and his game-high 25 points and 11 rebounds) powerless to help, the Buckeyes called timeout after Ali’s free throw put the Zips ahead. Assistant coach Ryan Pedon suggested they get the ball past midcourt, call timeout again and draw up one final action that would be easier to execute.
That meant fourth-year senior Justin Ahrens had to get the ball to second-year freshman Meechie Johnson Jr., and Johnson had to quickly get the ball upcourt. It was a notable assignment for a player making the first start of his college career, but he did it, calling timeout with 3.2 seconds to play and giving the Buckeyes one final chance.
In the huddle, Holtmann made a decision: inbound the ball to Malaki Branham at the three-point line, let him read the situation and make the right play.
Branham, a reserve in his collegiate debut, had shown enough to be trusted in the game’s most pivotal moment, and his pass to Key on the block led to the winning basket and set off pandemonium on the court as the Buckeyes celebrated.
“I couldn’t breathe,” Key said of the sequence. “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.”
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Branham and Johnson’s contributions in those final seconds stood in contrast to what Ohio State otherwise got from its backcourt. Johnson started alongside fifth-year Penn State transfer Jamari Wheeler, and the two finished with six combined points that came exclusively at the free-throw line. Each missed three field-goal attempts and combined for one assist (Wheeler) and two turnovers (Johnson).
Those numbers came in a combined 51:27 of playing time. Fifth-year Louisiana graduate transfer Cedric Russell had two fouls and no other stats in 3:50, while fifth-year Bucknell transfer Jimmy Sotos did not get off the bench. Branham was the lone bright spot in the backcourt, finishing with seven points, six rebounds and three assists in his first college game.
“I just think we’ll get better production from some of our guards than what we got tonight,” Holtmann said. “I didn’t think that was going to be that much of an issue, but we’ll see.”
Buckeyes sign five-man 2022 class
A five-man recruiting class ranked No. 6 nationally by 247Sports.com all signed for Ohio State by Wednesday afternoon, the start of the early signing period for college basketball.
The Buckeyes signed point guard Bruce Thornton from Alpharetta (Georgia) Milton, combo guard Roddy Gayle from Mount Pleasant (Utah) Wasatch Academy, shooting guard Bowen Hardman from Cincinnati Princeton, small forward Brice Sensabaugh from Orlando Lake Highland Prep and center Felix Okpara from Branson (Missouri) Link Academy.
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Holtmann will speak about the class during a Thursday press conference.
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