Ohio State's E.J. Liddell 'I just pointed to the sky and thanked God for everything'

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

MINNEAPOLIS – E.J. Liddell is not normally the type of player to keep track of how many points he has scored in a game.

Thursday night was an acceptable exception to the norm. As No. 16 Ohio State took the court at Williams Arena with a 32-30 lead, Liddell was aware that he had scored exactly nine points. And although he’s a journalism major, a field notoriously rife with people who are poor at math, Liddell could easily deduce that he needed only three more to hit the 1,000-point career scoring milestone that had been looming for the last nine days.

So on the second possession of the second half, Liddell took a pass from Justin Ahrens, drew contact at the rim and finished through a Treyton Thompson foul with 19:09 remaining in the game. Then, Liddell stepped to the line for his first free-throw attempt of the game.

Jan 27, 2022; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes forward E.J. Liddell (32) dunks the ball during the second half against the Minnesota Gophers  at Williams Arena. Mandatory Credit: Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

He swished it, giving him 12 for the game and an even grand for his career. He would finish with a game-high 23 points, a career-high 15 rebounds and Ohio State with a 75-64 win, but this was a moment to savor.

As his teammates erupted on the bench, clearly aware of how many points he needed, Liddell pointed to the sky as he headed back up the court.

“I kind of was aware during the game,” he said. “I don’t usually keep track of my points during the game but I was aware a little bit this game. When I got it, I just pointed to the sky and thanked God for everything. This has been special, and it’s been a special ride but I’ve still got a lot more in me, a lot more season left. This is an awesome milestone.”

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Liddell is the 60th Ohio State player to reach the milestone and the first since Duane Washington Jr. got there last season. With 1,011 career points, Liddell is now 57th in career scoring, three points behind Lenzelle Smith Jr.

As Liddell spoke with The Dispatch after the game, teammate Jamari Wheeler walked down the hallway outside the locker room and hollered, “It’s safe to say Liddell is the GOAT!” According to ESPN Stats & Info, Liddell is the first Ohio State player in the last 25 seasons to finish with at least 20 points, 15 rebounds and five assists in a game.

It wasn’t the only milestone of the night. Liddell’s fourth double-double of the season, the highest total of his career, helped coach Chris Holtmann reach 100 career wins with the Buckeyes. He’s the third-fastest coach to get there, outpaced by only Fred Taylor and Thad Matta.

Buckeyes basketball:Forever linked: Ohio State's Chris Holtmann, E.J. Liddell on verge of major milestones

The two numbers were meaningful to Holtmann, but not as much as the 11-point win that moved the Buckeyes to 13-4 overall and 6-2 in the Big Ten.

“Maybe they’ll grab a (game) ball,” Holtmann said. “I do have (keepsake) balls that signify wins, but I’m really happy for E.J. I’m really happy for our team. At some point I’ll take a moment to think about it. I love coaching this group and I’ve loved coaching at Ohio State. I’ve loved being here. Hopefully we can lead them to more wins.”

Holtmann said he wasn’t aware in the moment that Liddell had hit the milestone.

“I appreciate the kid every minute he’s out there,” Holtmann said. “I couldn’t appreciate him more. I could not keep track of what his point total was. The benches are separated a little bit. I figured he was going to get it tonight.

“The thing that makes E.J. special is if he had this performance, he’d be down there in a really bad place if we lost. That’s why he’s a special player.”

Meechie Johnson Jr. dons mask in return to play as Jamari Wheeler sits

After missing the last three games due to a facial fracture and concussion suffered Jan. 11 during practice, freshman guard Meechie Johnson Jr. was the first player up the stairs and onto the raised court at Minnesota as the Buckeyes ran out for warmups.

Johnson made his return and simultaneously filled in for fifth-year graduate transfer Jamari Wheeler, whose status for Sunday’s game at Purdue won’t be known until the hours prior to tip as he deals with a left foot/ankle injury.

“Jamari’s a great player,” Johnson said. “You’re coming out guarding a player like (Payton) Willis, you’ve just got to contain him. Jamari being a first-team all-Big Ten defender, you’ve just got to make sure when you replace somebody like that you match his energy and you go out there and contain him and do whatever you can do to stop him.”

In his first game since a Jan. 9 home win against Northwestern, Johnson logged a career-high 29:39 against the Golden Gophers.

“I thought he would be really winded, and he was, just because he’s not been able to do much in practice,” Holtmann said. “I thought he’d be winded, and he was, but he performed really well.”

In his return to the lineup, Johnson also debuted a new protective facemask that looks straight out of a comic book or horror movie.

“It’s like a Jason mask,” Liddell said. “It’s pretty cool, honestly. He says he can’t really breathe in it, which is funny, but I think it’s cool.”

Johnson went 1-for-7 from the floor with his only make coming from 3-point range, but he tied career highs with five rebounds and three assists while committing just one turnover. His lone make was from well beyond the line, a shot that’s becoming a Johnson staple.

“Look, I’m gonna keep shooting,” he said. “I’ve always got that confidence to let it go. Coaches, players got confidence in me to hit those shots. That was the only one I made tonight. I’ve got to get back in the lab, keep shooting and the other ones will fall, too.”

As for the mask, Johnson said it affected him and will take more getting used to.

“It’s really tough,” he said. “At times when I’d shoot, the ball hit my mask. It pokes out, so when I’m shooting it kept hitting it. Being the point guard, you’ve got to really yell because they can’t really hear me. Breathing. It’s a lot. It’s a lot to it, but I’m not here to make excuses. We came out victorious and that’s all that matters.”

E.J. Liddell, Buckeyes dominate Golden Gophers on the glass

Some of it was due to Minnesota’s zone defense, which can create problems rebounding. But most of what would become a 48-22 rebounding advantage for Ohio State, including 20 on the offensive end, was a credit to the emphasis the Buckeyes placed on crashing the glass during their nine-day layoff.

Of the 36 shots Ohio State missed, 20 of them were turned into offensive rebounds, leading to 27 second-chance points for the Buckeyes.

“That’s been a thing for us every day,” Kyle Young, who had 14 points, four rebounds, a season-high four assists and no turnovers. “In practice especially, we’ve put in new drills, everything for us bigs. I think that’s definitely helped us a little bit. We’ve been emphasizing that all season, but especially as of lately.”

On a night where Liddell’s scoring was a primary talking point, his ability to rebound drew extra praise from Holtmann.

“All in all, at times our best zone offense was the glass,” the coach said. “We need to get better at executing against the zone, but I thought we were able to get key rebounds.”

Nine of Liddell’s rebounds came during the first half. Minnesota collectively had 13 at the break.

“We did put in an offensive rebounding drill (during the layoff),” Liddell said. “Coach has been pounding we need to get better on the offensive glass and that’s what we did. I wasn’t aware of how many rebounds I had until the end of the first half and I was like, ‘All right, I need to get more.’ ”

Ohio State shakes off recent past at Minnesota

The last time the Buckeyes won at the Barn, Thad Matta was the coach, D’Angelo Russell was on the roster and Jae’Sean Tate and Keita Bates-Diop were his fellow freshmen. It was a 74-72 overtime victory that took place Jan. 6, 2015, during what was Holtmann’s first season as Butler’s coach.

Since then, the numbers weren’t pretty: three double-digit losses, including one in 2019-20 that kept the Buckeyes from holding the No. 1 ranking in the Associated Press poll.

That history was discussed before the game, but so was the chance to wipe it all clean.

“Coming in here, it’s hard not to look at that and see that,” Young 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.”

Holtmann said it was important to acknowledge the struggles but also emphasize that they had no bearing on this year’s team.

“You don’t want to ignore the fact that you struggled at a place,” he said. “We tried to dissect why. I think also, give (Minnesota) credit, we played good teams those years. In general, while those teams are different from this year’s team, I think the whole idea of coming here with a purpose of playing better was something the guys took ahold of.”

Quotable

“I felt the energy. I felt the energy from the bench. I felt the energy from the coaches, the guys on the floor, the managers, everybody. I felt like we’re getting back to full form. We’re (always) going to miss Jamari and we’ve got a couple guys we could get back too, but I feel like as we keep doing that and keep getting healthy this season will go on an upward path.” – Liddell

“First, congrats to my boy E over here. That’s huge. He’s been special for us in my whole time here. He’s been critical for us. Congrats to Holt for his 100th win as well. That’s huge. I’ve been with him this whole time. That happening here tonight, and this being my first time winning here, there’s a lot of special things that happened. We’re just grateful.” – Young

“You can’t get buried by teams on the road. We’ve had to dig ourselves out of a hole, not against Indiana, but we did against Wisconsin. We just didn’t play with necessary force. Games are different. This (Minnesota) team plays differently than Purdue plays, but still, that’s on us. Give the other team credit, but we just couldn’t ever get over the hump against Wisconsin with what was done in the first half to us.” – Holtmann

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