E.J. Liddell, Buckeyes lament lack of toughness in loss at Xavier

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

CINCINNATI – The word “toughness” got thrown around a lot after Thursday night’s game at the Cintas Center.

In the end, it was something that Xavier had, No. 19 Ohio State said it didn’t have enough of and it proved to be the difference in a 71-65 Musketeers win that had been a long time coming for the local fans. In the first on-campus meeting between the two programs since the last day of 1934, Xavier won the opening tip, got the ball to fifth-year guard Paul Scruggs and let him finish with a driving layup.

Ohio State Buckeyes forward E.J. Liddell (32) drives against Xavier Musketeers forward Jerome Hunter (21) in the second half of the NCAA basketball game between the Xavier Musketeers and the Ohio State Buckeyes at the Cintas Center in Cincinnati on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021. Xavier defeated the 19-ranked Buckeyes, 71-65.

And with the Buckeyes back within two points in the final seconds, it was his slam dunk that put the exclamation point on a game that gave Ohio State a clear understanding of what it takes to win that this level of competition.

“They just out-toughed us on a lot of plays,” second-year guard Meechie Johnson said. “Rebounding, they just wanted it more at times. That second half, we adjusted. It wasn’t talent, we just didn’t get a stop consistently. That hurt us.”

Toughness is a tough word to quantify, but a few numbers shed some light in this one. Xavier out-rebounded the Buckeyes, 43-35, and pulled down 16 on the offensive end to extend possessions. The Musketeers forced Ohio State into 13 turnovers, nine of which came in the first half as they built a 35-26 lead.

But maybe most impactful: Ohio State finished 9 for 23 on layups. Xavier was 14 for 28 in a six-point win where it was 5 for 24 (20.8%) from 3-point range, highlighting the fact that this is not an elite shooting team. Xavier needed to get the ball inside to win, and it did, outscoring Ohio State 38-28 in the paint.

“They made more layups than we made tonight,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. “We have to play with more force on both ends. I don’t think that’s what got us beat: it was the glass tonight. The glass, and our inability in the first half to get the kind of quality shot we need to, but it was first and foremost the glass.”

This game marked a significant step up in competition for the Buckeyes, who were 3-0 but struggled to get to that point. A season-opening game against Akron came down to a last-second shot to avoid the upset, and the Buckeyes needed time to fend off Niagara three days later. Those teams are ranked Nos. 120 and 233, respectively, according to KenPom.com. A blowout win against Bowling Green on Monday night (No. 160) provided some confidence, but No. 35 Xavier was clearly on a different level.

So when he was asked about his team learning that it needs to play with more toughness, Holtmann didn’t discount the notion.

“We need to,” he said. “I obviously need to get us tougher, and we need to embrace the idea that we have to play a lot tougher. Those guys are spot-on. It’s on all of us. We have to do a much better job of that and grow from this. It’s not going to be good enough to beat good teams on the road, this level of toughness. We need to be better.”

Third-year forward E.J. Liddell, who finished with 17 points, seven rebounds and eight blocks, said the team’s younger players need to learn what it takes to win in places like this.

“We’ve got to create our own energy, but we’ve gotta be tougher,” he said. “They were taking it through our chins, taking it through our chests. I felt like they were playing harder than us for most of the game.”

By the time the Buckeyes figured that out – and it felt like they did for a few minutes late in the second half – it was too late. Trailing 54-44 with 8:10 left, the Buckeyes pulled within 57-54 with a 10-3 run capped by a Johnson layup with 3:20 to play.

It put the ending in doubt, until Scruggs dunked so hard they had to have heard the roar down the road at rival Cincinnati in a play that will be long remembered among Xavier fans more than his two free throws with 16.3 seconds left after a Jamari Wheeler made it a 67-65 game.

“When you’ve got a leader like Paul Scruggs, a closer like Paul Scruggs, it keeps everybody even-keeled,” Xavier coach Travis Steele said. “There was no panic when Ohio State went on their run. Give Paul a lot of credit for closing off the game.”

Ohio State might get there eventually. Johnson, making his 21st career appearance, scored a career-high 14 points off the bench on 5-of-12 shooting. In 23:50, he finished with three assists and three turnovers while playing the final 8:19 of the game. First-year guard Malaki Branham, in his fourth career game, had seven points on 3-of-11 shooting.

There’s development that needs to take place there with both of them. They’re just not there yet.

“I’m glad our young guys got to experience this environment because hopefully it’ll prepare us more for what our league is,” Holtmann said.

And no doubt it’ll start with toughness.

With Justice Sueing out, Gene Brown doesn’t return after hard fall

Already down a primary contributor in fifth-year forward Justice Sueing, Ohio State’s rotation was further thinned with 5:14 to play when second-year guard Gene Brown III took a hard fall after pulling down a hard-fought offensive rebound as Ohio State had scored five straight points. Tangled up with Xavier’s Adam Kunkel, Brown drew a foul while going down with the ball as the back of his head came down hard on the Cintas Center court.

He would eventually be helped up and escorted to the bench area, but he would not return. No update on his status was given after the game, and although he was 0 for 4 from the floor, Brown pulled down a career-high eight rebounds, split evenly at both sides of the court, in only 11:19. His athleticism and versatility were a bright spot in the game until that point.

Sueing is likely to be sidelined at least 5-6 weeks with his abdominal injury, sources have told The Dispatch, and his absence was felt in this game. Liddell, who had a team-high 17 points on 7-of-14 shooting, was asked about having to shoulder a bigger burden in his absence.

Ohio State men's basketball:When did Ohio State's Justice Sueing suffer his groin injury? Here's the timeline

“Obviously everybody knows how big Justice is for this team,” he said. “I don’t feel like it’s a burden because we’ve got a lot of guys who can step up on the offensive end. Just gotta make the simple shots, but Justice is a big part of that and I hope he’ll be back soon.”

Sueing watched the game with his team from the bench.

Xavier gets its shot at history

It’s been a while since Ohio State has lost this kind of game.

Ohio State’s last loss to another Ohio team came in the first round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament, when Dayton beat the Buckeyes, 60-59. During the regular season, you have to go back to Dec. 5, 1998, for the last such Ohio State loss – and that one came on the road, too, when Toledo hosted the Buckeyes and beat them 64-63.

It was only the third time Ohio State has played an on-campus road game against an in-state school since the 1989-90 season, and the home fans were plenty juiced for the experience.

“We came to shootaround and there were 250 students greeting us in a really friendly way on the way in,” Holtmann said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “That’s good for our team. It’s good for college basketball. Doesn’t feel good right now. Feels terrible, but I’m glad we were part of it.”

Xavier coach Travis Steele described the night as a statement opportunity for his team.

“I wanted to make sure those guys knew the background to what it meant to our former players,” he said. “I just wanted to play to our identity. I thought we were the better team going into the game and that proved itself over the 40 minutes.”

E.J. Liddell’s block party

It wouldn’t be enough to turn the game, but Liddell brought some physicality to the defensive end by blocking a career-high eight shots. That ties him for the sixth-best single-game performance in history.

He’s now the 10th Buckeye to block eight shots in a game and the first since Dallas Lauderdale did so Nov. 12, 2010 against North Carolina A&T.

“I was just trying to do my part,” Liddell said. “I was trying to bring some energy, be that guy. We’ve got to be tougher. Learn from this.”

Steele was effusive in his praise for Liddell.

“Liddell gives you a lot of problems,” he said. “He’s so strong. They do an incredible job of putting him in positions that put you in a bind.”

Quotable

"I thought he was aggressive. He needed to be aggressive. I thought he missed some good ones. He’s got to play through disappointment. He’s got to have a better grit to him when he misses a shot or two. We’re working on that with him. He’s young. He’ll figure that out. I liked his aggressiveness. He’s got to give us  more defensively and on the glass, but I have no problems with his shots. I loved his aggressiveness." - Holtmann on Branham

"My teammates trust me. My coach trusts me. I’ve just got to have confidence in myself. Being timid in that first game, I had to adjust and play with more confidence and be the player they recruited me to be. We didn’t do enough to come out victorious." - Johnson

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy