Ohio State shakes off rust, hits multiple milestones in win at Minnesota

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

MINNEAPOLIS – The recent numbers weren’t pretty here for Ohio State.

Take 3:45, for instance. In their last three trips to Williams Arena, that is the combined amount of time the Buckeyes ever held a lead. All three of those games were losses of the double-digit variety.

Thursday night, they added a few new ones to their personal history that will be remembered more fondly.

Junior forward E.J. Liddell became the 60th Buckeye to reach 1,000 career points, Chris Holtmann became the third-fastest Ohio State coach to reach 100 career wins and the No. 16 Buckeyes (13-4, 6-2 Big Ten) showed few ill effects from a nine-day layoff in between games with a 75-64 win against Minnesota (11-6, 2-6).

"Coming in here, it’s hard not to look at that and see that," fifth-year senior Kyle Young, who had 14 points on 5-of-7 shooting, said. "Coaches mentioned to us at the beginning of the game that this was our history to be written, not teams in the past. It was a good point to tell us to come in here and create our own history with this game and go out there and play hard and that’s what I think we did.

"We came in here and threw the first punch and were able to come out with the win."

They did it without the services of fifth-year guard Jamari Wheeler, who missed the game with a foot/ankle injury. In his absence, Ohio State took care of the ball, pounded the offensive glass and rode a balanced attack to victory.

The Buckeyes pulled down a season-high 20 offensive rebounds, turning them into 27 second-chance points. Liddell finished with a career-high 15 rebounds and added a game-high 23 points as four Buckeyes finished in double figures.

Without Wheeler, who had played all 149 possible games during his five-year career and was in line for his 100th career start, the Buckeyes utilized a starting lineup the likes of which haven’t been seen in nearly three decades. Meechie Johnson Jr. and Malaki Branham became the first freshman guards to start alongside each other since Damon Stringer and Jami Bosley in 1995-96.

Wheeler watched the game with a walking boot on his left leg. Johnson donned a protective facemask after sustaining a facial fracture and concussion during practice Jan. 11 and missing the last three games.

"Tiring, but it felt good to be out there, get a road win," Johnson said. "That’s always great. Can’t complain."

And while Ohio State found itself losing a fifth-year veteran and regaining a freshman, Minnesota saw sophomore forward and leading scorer Jamison Battle (non-COVID illness) and senior guard E.J. Stephens (health and safety protocols) return after missing a Jan. 22 home win against Rutgers. Battle entered the game averaging 18.0 points while Stephens, in his last three games, had averaged 17.3 points and 12.0 for the season.

Up by two at the break, the Buckeyes started to put some distance between themselves and the Golden Gophers in the opening minutes. Justin Ahrens hit a wide-open 3-pointer from the right corner on the first possession of the half, and 51 seconds into it E.J. Liddell hit his career milestone with a three-point play. After a feed from Ahrens, Liddell scored, drew a foul on Minnesota’s Treyton Thompson and hit the free throw to give him 1,000 for his career.

Liddell pointed to the sky as he headed back up the court and multiple teammates jumped to their feet on the bench in celebration. Most importantly, it gave Ohio State a 38-30 lead, and the Buckeyes would push it to 48-37 by scoring on five straight possessions, four of which came courtesy of Young. His basket in the paint with 14:20 to play gave the Buckeyes the 11-point lead and moved him to 14 points for the night.

"I don’t usually keep track of my points during the game but I was aware a little bit this game," Liddell said. "When I got it, I just pointed to the sky and thanked God for everything. 

Branham got the Buckeyes going early, scoring nine of their first 11 points during the first 5:10 of the game before Minnesota switched to a zone that frustrated Ohio State’s shooters. After scoring those first 11 points so quickly, Ohio State wouldn’t reach 20 until 5:36 remained on a Zed Key putback to give the Buckeyes a one-point lead. That play typified the half for Ohio State, which pulled down 11 offensive rebounds and held a 24-14 edge on the glass at the break.

The Key bucket started a run of nine straight possessions with at least a point for the Buckeyes, but it didn’t open up much of an advantage. Minnesota scored on four straight to keep pace, and a free throw from Payton Willis with 5.5 seconds left set the halftime score at a 32-30 Ohio State lead. The Buckeyes led despite going 3 for 15 (20.0%) from 3 during the half, one of which was a deep heave from Johnson for his first points of the night.

Wheeler is expected to again be a day-of-game decision for Ohio State’s Sunday road game against Purdue.

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy