Behind E.J. Liddell's early eruption, Ohio State rebounds with Northwestern win

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

Running back down the court, E.J. Liddell stared at his right hand in mock disbelief.

Seconds earlier, the Ohio State forward had buried his fifth 3-pointer of the game. After a pair of rough performances in the two games back following a 22-day COVID-19 pause for the program, Liddell was perfect from deep and already had 17 points only five minutes into the game. The Buckeyes led 19-11 at that point as the crowd roared for Liddell’s return to form.

No more doubtersE.J. Liddell puts up career night in Ohio State win

Thursday night at Indiana’s Assembly Hall, Liddell left with an ice pack on that right hand after Ohio State limped to a 67-51 loss. If he’d tried to put ice on that right hand at the five-minute mark of Sunday’s Northwestern game, it’d have melted before even getting within a socially distanced radius of the forward.

Behind Liddell’s early outburst that led to a career-high 34 points, No. 13 Ohio State (10-3, 4-1 Big Ten) looked more like the offensive team it was pre-pause and handled the Wildcats (8-5, 1-3), 95-87, despite the virus making another impact on the roster.

Sun., Jan. 9, 2022; Columbus, Ohio, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes forward E.J. Liddell (32) celebrates after a three-pointer during the first half of a NCAA Division I men’s basketball game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Northwestern Wildcats at Value City Arena

The Buckeyes were without coach Chris Holtmann and assistant Ryan Pedon, who missed the game due to health and safety protocols. Assistant coach Jake Diebler filled in as acting head coach, with assistant Tony Skinn and assistant to the head coach Mike Netti filling out the bench.

It was the first time Holtmann had ever had to miss a game during his career as a head or assistant coach, which dates back to 1998. On the official pregame radio show, Diebler said he told the team Saturday night that “if any team in the country is equipped to handle this kind of situation, it’s us.”

As he sat down for his first postgame press conference, Diebler quipped, "Sure helps to have E.J. Liddell."

Liddell made sure of that early. He scored on Ohio State’s first two possessions, one a jumper near the rim and the second a 3-pointer, as the Buckeyes opened up the early lead in a game they would never trail. After a Malaki Branham drive and finish, Liddell would hit 3-pointers on four of five possessions.

His teammates would follow suit, and when Meechie Johnson Jr. hit one, Northwestern called timeout with 12:06 left and Ohio State ahead 29-14 while shooting 7 for 9 from deep. Liddell’s scoring pace would slow, but he continued to fill out the stat sheet. When he blocked Ryan Young’s shot with 2:59 left in the first half, it gave him four for the game and 100 for his career.

When Jamari Wheeler stole the ball, broke into the open court and scored in the final seconds before the half, it gave the Buckeyes a 51-39 lead and equaled their point total for Thursday’s entire game.

In the two games since Ohio State's return, Liddell had gone 5 for 26 (19.2%) from the floor, 2 for 10 (20.0%) from 3 and combined for fewer points (21) than in his final game before the break (28 against Wisconsin on Dec. 11).

Against the Wildcats, he was 12 for 20 from the floor and finished with five blocks and four rebounds.

"I felt a little bit more in shape, honestly," Liddell said. "Still trying to get back in the shape I was in before the pause, because that was a pretty long break. I came in this game with the same mindset. A lot of people was doubting me after two bad games this past week. Truthfully, I just kept my head up and kept playing with confidence and doing what I know how to do."

Branham had 24 points on 5-of-8 shooting thanks to an 11-for-12 effort from the free-throw line. He is averaging 24.0 points per game in the three games since Ohio State's return.

"Indiana, some of the shots was going in and out but the coaches told me to keep being aggressive," Branham said. I tried to just do the same thing in this game."

Ohio State made all but one of its 27 free throws, going 96.3% from the line. Wheeler finished with 8 points, eight rebounds, six assists and five steals.

The Buckeyes are now 18-1 all-time against Northwestern in Value City Arena. The 95 points are a season high, and Northwestern's 87 points are its most against the Buckeyes since it scored 95 on Feb. 25, 1967.

"That was a real grind-it-out Big Ten defensive battle today," Northwestern coach Chris Collins said.

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

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