Ohio State's Malaki Branham enjoys 'Welcome to Star City' in Nebraska

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

LINCOLN, Neb. — Four words accompanied the pregame hype video on the Pinnacle Bank Arena jumbotron as the home starters were announced.

Amid the usual bombastic music and inspirational video clips, the giant screens hanging over center court read, “Welcome to Star City” — a nickname for Lincoln — as Ohio State and Nebraska’s players watched moments before Sunday night’s opening tip.

By the end, Nebraska was left seeing stars, and Malaki Branham’s outshone them all.

The youngest player on the Ohio State roster opened the game with three 3-pointers in the first six minutes, scored a career-high 21 points by halftime, and by the end, had the most prolific performance for a Buckeye freshman in a Big Ten game in program history as OSU (9-2, 3-0 Big Ten) shook off a 22-day COVID-19 layoff with an 87-79 overtime win against the Cornhuskers (6-8, 0-3).

Malaki Branham's breakout game

After having scored 63 points through the first 10 games of the season, Branham had 35 on Sunday night.

“I kind of built my confidence after I hit those first couple,” he said. “They just told me to keep shooting, so that’s what I did.”

After scoring a combined 63 points through the first 10 games of the season, Ohio State's Malaki Branham had 35 Sunday night in an 87-79 overtime win over Nebraska.

The only players who could cool him down were his teammates. As Branham did the postgame television interview, four of his fellow Buckeyes snuck up behind him and doused him with cups of cold water near midcourt. As he stood outside the visitors’ locker room and spoke with a handful of reporters, Branham was interrupted by teammate Justice Sueing, who had him smile for a photo.

Sophomore center Zed Key, who pulled down a career-high 14 rebounds while trying to shake off the effects of his own 10-day COVID quarantine, praised his teammate in a deadpan voice.

“That boy good,” Key said. “That boy good. I’m telling you, people, he’s going to be a really good player. As you see, 35 points, he’s going to be a really good player.”

There was no arguing on this night as Branham did his damage at all three levels. It wasn’t just Branham's first game with multiple 3-pointers: He tied the Ohio State single-game freshman record with six and blew past his previous career high of 11 points when he hit his fourth 3-pointer of the game only 12:40 in, giving him 14 points. Two possessions later, he threw down a one-handed dunk and followed that two possessions later with a fifth 3-pointer.

Ohio State's Malaki Branham tied the Buckeyes' single-game freshman record with six 3-pointers in an 87-79 overtime win over Nebraska.

He hit a few mid-range jumpers, too, displaying the all-around game that made him a prized recruit for coach Chris Holtmann.

“This is kind of a wild one, but he’s had really good moments,” Holtmann said. “Malaki’s maturity is one of the things that we’ve been so impressed with ever since we started recruiting him about three years ago. That’s allowed him to grow as a player.”

Before each game, Branham thinks of a message from his grandmother, Luzon. Their joint motto is “Do U,” and he repeats it before taking the court each game. In recent weeks, he’s taken to writing “Be Fearless” on one of his shoes and “Be Confident” on the other.

He was all of those things Sunday night. The only Ohio State freshman with a better scoring night was Jared Sullinger, who had 40 in a Dec. 9, 2010 home win against non-conference opponent IUPUI. Branham's effort came on the road on a night when E.J. Liddell struggled to a 2-for-14 shooting effort as he tried to shake off the effects of his 10-day quarantine.

It almost went for naught. The Cornhuskers led by five points with 30 seconds to play before Jamari Wheeler hit a 3-pointer, Nebraska’s Lat Mayen missed a pair of free throws and Liddell was fouled on a put-back with 8.9 seconds to play before hitting both free throws to tie the game. Gene Brown’s block of a Derrick Walker putback with two seconds remaining sent the game to overtime, where the Buckeyes quickly pulled away.

That they were in position to pull it out was primarily due to Branham carrying the load.

“This is my game in college that I kind of took over,” he said. “The team kind of needed me, but there (were) also great plays from all the team all the way down. Especially Gene Brown, that block that saved us.”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

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