Fueled by doubters, E.J. Liddell puts up career night in Ohio State win

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

To the extent that there were naysayers, Jake Diebler wanted to be sure to thank them.

It wasn’t exactly a secret that E.J. Liddell, and by extension, Ohio State hadn’t looked quite the same since returning from COVID-19 pause. The numbers tell the story, as did Thursday’s 16-point defeat at Indiana, but the body of work was still there. Liddell was the same player who had averaged 20.6 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.0 blocks and 2.7 assists while playing his way into national player of the year consideration.

So when adversity landed another blow, and the Buckeyes lost coach Chris Holtmann and assistant Ryan Pedon for Sunday’s home game with Northwestern due to COVID-19, acting head coach Jake Diebler put his trust in the hands of the team’s upperclassmen.

Liddell, in particular, delivered with a career-high 34 points to key a 95-87 win. After going 12 for 20 from the floor, Liddell said he’d heard “a lot of people doubting” him after what he classified as two bad performances since the return.

Sunday, a red-eyed and scratchy-sounding Diebler had a message to the haters.

“E.J. is a competitor,” he said. “I don’t know that he needed any extra motivation, but for those who did, thank you. He brings it every day. He competes at a high level. I guess if he needed a little extra that was much appreciated, because it certainly helped.”

E.J. Liddell came out fast against Northwestern

Liddell was so lethal early on, the facts of the matter caught him by surprise after the game. Through the first five minutes, Liddell had 17 points and was perfect on six shots, five of which were from 3-point range. It was nearly as many points as he had totaled during his last two games (21).

After his fifth 3-pointer, Liddell stared at his hand in mock disbelief as he headed back on defense. Seated next to freshman Malaki Branham, who had 24 points, Liddell said he had no idea he had hit that many consecutive shots to open the game.

“I was just doing what I normally do,” he said. “I didn’t know I hit five (3-pointers) in a row. That’s crazy. I was just doing what I know how to do.”

Asked if he had ever scored 17 points in five minutes before, Liddell said, “Not that I remember, no.”

The only surprising part of the performance, Liddell said, was that he was as open as he was on most of his early shots.

“I’m be honest: I was open,” he said. “Most of those shots I was open. I wasn’t telling them to get me the ball or anything.”

Northwestern coach Chris Collins said the Buckeyes did a good job playing two-man games with Jamari Wheeler and Liddell. Wheeler, who had six assists, dished out three of them to Liddell during those first five minutes.

“We weren’t communicating well,” Collins said. “One time we just lost him. The other ones were pick-and-pop situations. Give him credit and his team credit: there’s mistakes made in the game all the time but the other team has something to do with that. We were having a really hard time stopping it. He had 17 right off the bat and certainly that was not the game plan for us.

“I thought we played him better after that. We at least made him work a little bit, take tough shots, fade away, things of that nature. He’s a terrific college player.”

By halftime, Liddell’s 21 points were good for his sixth-best game of the season and tied for his scoring total in the last two games combined. He scored 11 points in the final seven minutes to help fend off the ever-charging Wildcats.

It’s worth noting that while Liddell’s shooting wasn’t at his usual level, he pulled down 17 rebounds and had six blocks during the two games and had a season-high seven assists in the overtime win against Nebraska.

Meanwhile, on Jan. 3 Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis scored 37 in a win at Purdue and Iowa’s Keegan Murray had 35 in a win against Maryland. Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn had 29 in a win against Minnesota one day later, and Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis scored 27 against the Buckeyes on Thursday.

Liddell shot down the concept of trying to keep pace with the conference’s other elite players.

“I like winning basketball games,” he said. “If somebody drops 40 and they lose a game, that doesn’t mean much. I’m about winning games.”

Jake Diebler shakes off nerves as acting coach

He tried his best to hide it, but Diebler couldn’t deny the nerves he felt in filling in for Holtmann. On a skeleton staff that included fellow assistant Tony Skinn and special assistant to the head coach Mike Netti temporarily in a helping role, Diebler credited Holtmann for building a program and culture to where the Buckeyes could function in his absence as well as the team’s upperclassmen for answering the call.

“We felt like if anybody was built to withstand this adversity, we felt like it was us for those two things primarily,” Diebler said. “Give our upperclassmen a ton of credit, first and foremost. I texted E.J. last night and told him that he was going to need to be on it. Told him today to make us look good there on the bench, and man did he ever.”

Liddell and Branham said it was a little strange not to see Holtmann during the huddles, and both said they could tell Diebler had some nerves as the game got underway.

“I feel like he’s always nervous before games,” Branham said.

Diebler said the nerves come from his love for the game. His father, Keith, is a longtime Ohio high school coach, and Jake grew up immersed in basketball.

“This game has been so good to me, how important this game has been for my family,” he said. “There’s a deep-rooted love and passion for this game, so there are always nerves before every game for me. There were certainly a few more before this game.”

Netti had a big hand in the offense, which responded with a season-best scoring night.

Ohio State’s defense has tough night against Northwestern

For all of the talk of the Ohio State offense, the Buckeyes were never able to string together enough defensive stops to firmly push the game out of reach until the very end. The Wildcats went 32 for 68 from the floor (47.1%), grabbed 16 offensive rebounds and turned them into 17 second-chance points.

Northwestern actually outscored Ohio State 48-44 after halftime.

“We know we’ve got to clean up some things on the (defensive) side of the ball,” Diebler said. “This was a challenging team to prepare for considering all the change in the last 48 hours. Our mindset was to keep it simple. That’s not a simple team to play against.”

Liddell said the Wildcats gave the Buckeyes a lot to prepare for.

“They have a lot of actions, a lot of transition different plays, staggers, a lot of different reps out of the same set,” he said. “We all have to talk and communicate, honestly. We had a few lapses sometimes in the game but that’s the things we’re going to work on. Just talk and be connected.”

Collins opened his press conference by joking, “That was a real grind-it-out Big Ten defensive battle today.

“Our offense was good,” he said. “We just couldn’t get the stops. You can’t win a game in the Big Ten giving up 95 points. If you were going to tell me today we were going to score 87, I would’ve felt good about our chances.”

One full year for Meechie Johnson Jr.

Still technically a freshman, Meechie Johnson Jr. is in his second season with the Buckeyes and first full year. An early high school graduate in 2020, he joined the team that December and began acclimating to Big Ten play.

His first minutes came Jan. 9, 2021, in a 79-68 road win against Rutgers. One full calendar year has now passed since his debut, and Sunday against Northwestern Johnson hit both of his 3-point attempts and finished with six points, two rebounds, one assist and one steal in 15:15. His first 3-pointer forced a Northwestern timeout with 12:06 left in the first half and gave the Buckeyes a 29-14 lead.

Johnson’s second 3 came with 8:03 left in the game and the Wildcats threatening to make it interesting. The Ohio State lead was down to seven points and, with the shot clock winding down, he drained one from the Ohio State logo at midcourt to push it back to a 10-point lead.

Johnson has played 30 games for the Buckeyes, scoring 107 points (3.6 per game) and shooting 41.9% (26 for 62) from 3-point range. This season, he is averaging 6.6 points while shooting 40.0% (20 for 50) from deep.

By the numbers

• Ohio State’s 95 points were the most allowed by the Wildcats since Iowa scored 96 on Jan. 17, 2021.

• The Buckeyes missed just one free throw and finished 26 for 27 from the line. Malaki Branham was 13 for 14.

• Wheeler led all players with eight rebounds.

• The Buckeyes led for 39:17 and never trailed.


Get more Ohio State basketball news by listening to our podcasts