E.J. Liddell asks to guard Trayce Jackson-Davis, nabs crucial steal in Ohio State win

Adam Jardy
The Columbus Dispatch

The matchup was the one E.J. Liddell specifically asked for.

Sunday was a day in limbo for Ohio State, the one calendar date in between Saturday’s 13-point home loss to Iowa and a Monday rematch with an Indiana team that handed the Buckeyes a 16-point loss on Jan. 6. It left Ohio State with little time to prepare and even less time to wallow, but it also led Liddell to make a request of the coaching staff.

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When he was on the court alongside Kyle Young, Liddell wanted to guard Trayce Jackson-Davis, the Indiana go-to center who entered the night averaging 18.0 points and 8.3 rebounds. In this season’s prior matchup, he finished with 21 points and 12 rebounds to push his career averages to 15.8 and 7.8, respectively, in four games against Ohio State.

Liddell wanted, and got, Jackson-Davis for long stretches throughout the game. The 6-9, 245-pound sophomore finished with only three made field goals, 13 points and nine rebounds, but Liddell made his presence felt most when the final outcome was in the balance.

With 1:23 remaining and the Ohio State deficit at 63-59, the Hoosiers called timeout after a Malaki Branham missed 3-pointer and drew up a play that would never be realized. As Race Thompson attempted to feed Jackson-Davis near the left elbow, Liddell jumped in front of his man and came up with the steal.

From that point, with 1:11 to play, the Buckeyes outscored the Hoosiers 21-6 to turn that four-point deficit into an 11-point win, 80-69, in overtime. Throughout, freshman Malaki Branham carried the load, finishing with a game-high 27 points.

But look for a turning point in the final minutes, and Liddell’s steal is it – just like he wanted.

“(Sunday) I asked coach could I guard (Jackson-Davis) whenever Kyle and I was in the game,” Liddell said. “I felt like they were going to go to him at the end of the game because he’s been their go-to guy. I used extra-effort plays to get that ball. Our defense created offense for us.”

It did from there. After Liddell’s steal, Branham drew a foul on a drive with 56.1 seconds left and hit both free throws to pull the Buckeyes within two. Then, after Tamar Bates missed a 3-pointer with 28 seconds left, Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann had the option of calling a timeout or trusting his guys on the court to make a play.

He went with the latter, and Branham fed Liddell for a dunk to tie the game with 5.4 seconds remaining that would send the game to overtime.

Indiana coach Mike Woodson called Liddell’s steal and his team’s defense on his dunk each the play of the game at different points during his postgame press conference.

“When we’re up four, we throw the ball away out of a timeout,” Woodson said. “We got nothing out of it, and we came down and fouled. You’re up two with 15 seconds left, you’ve got to get a stop and we give up a layup. Those are the two biggest possessions of the night.

“If they’re going to make a shot to tie the ballgame, it surely can’t be a layup.”

For an Ohio State team left lamenting both its offensive and defensive performances in the loss to the Hawkeyes, the dunk seemed just rewards for digging in on the other end of the floor. The Buckeyes had their second-worst adjusted defensive efficiency performance Saturday and responded with their eighth-best of the season against the Hoosiers.

There were still plenty of nits to pick. Indiana pulled down 15 offensive rebounds and turned them into 17 second-chance points, and the Hoosiers attempted 10 more shots than the Buckeyes while turning an 11-point second-half deficit into the four-point lead in the final minutes of regulation.

But it didn’t come as much of a surprise that, during a press conference featuring Liddell and Branham that lasted roughly seven minutes, Liddell twice apologized for feeling like he was talking too much about defense.

When it mattered most, he stepped up and his teammates followed.

“E.J. did a great job,” coach Chris Holtmann said. “I want to give E.J. credit because E.J. asked to guard Trayce and I thought he was able to give him different angles and keep a body on him. Trayce is such a phenomenal player that that probably took a lot out and affected E.J.’s offense, but it was a big-time deflection.”

Malaki Branham blasting concept of freshman wall

This is the time of year that coaches openly worry about the toll of a Big Ten season finally catching up to first-year players. Holtmann has said as such in recent weeks while relying heavily upon Branham, whose star continues to rise.

For an eighth straight game, Branham played at least 30 minutes. He logged 39:09 in this one, and during that stretch is averaging 15.5 points per game and has 49 in his last two games. Both of them came with former Buckeye Jim Jackson on the television broadcast, the player whose retired No. 22 jersey he now wears.

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So while Holtmann invoked the concept of the freshman wall when discussing Branham after the Iowa loss, he pushed back against speaking it into existence Monday.

“If there’s no wall, I’m good with that,” the coach said. “Let’s not make up a wall if there is no wall. I’m fine with there being no wall at any time. I’m just aware of the amount of minutes I’m playing a young guy with young legs and now we’re asking him to do more than he did earlier in the year.”

Branham’s 27 points came on only 13 shots. He was perfect on eight free throws.

“I don’t think I hit it,” Branham said of the wall. “I’ve still got to condition myself to play minutes like that, but I feel fine. Just taking a little ice bath and that’s it.”

In the first matchup this season, Branham had 13 points on 13 shots.

“Branham is a good player,” Indiana’s Parker Stewart said. “We wanted to force him to his left hand. That was the game plan. In the second half we had to adjust our pick-and-roll coverage on him, to switching, to try to prevent him from getting downhill. He made some tough shots, and we also made some mistakes guarding him letting him get to his right hand. I take the blame for that because I guarded him most of the night.”

Holtmann credited Branham’s ability to get to his spots and make plays, saying it’s the best he’s ever seen. It can make subbing him out a challenge.

“I want to keep him fresh, but we’ve needed every minute from him,” Holtmann said. “His ability to play-make and have ball skills and make reads and get to his spots. With our team this year, sometimes Cedric can do that. We have other guys that can do it at times, but he certainly can do it at the highest level right now.”

Branham has emerged as the playmaker and go-to role that was envisioned for Justice Sueing, whose return this season looks more unlikely by the day as he works to recover from a groin/abdominal injury that shut him down two games into the season.

It begs the question: would Branham be developing at this rate if Sueing was healthy?

“It’s a good question, but I would like to see what that was like,” Holtmann said. “If you’re giving me an option, I’d like to see Justice out there and see if Malaki figured it out. I think he probably would.”

Indiana, Ohio State both cite fatigue levels in game

Both teams entered the game at varied levels of preparedness. Thanks to the scheduling snafu created when the Feb. 6 game against Iowa was postponed due to travel issues and winter weather, the two schools worked with the Big Ten to schedule a make-up date. That wound up being Saturday, which moved this game to Monday.

When the ball was tipped, it was Ohio State’s second game in three days. Indiana, which had lost four straight entering the game, had been off since a Feb. 15 home loss to Wisconsin.

Still, both coaches cited fatigue during their press conferences. Ohio State has not been much of a fast-break team this season, but it finished with zero points via the break.

“We honestly didn’t have the legs to really push it off of misses,” Holtmann said. “Normally I’d like to have some freedom and push it off of misses, but we didn’t have the speed or legs to do it.”

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Woodson, meanwhile, looked at the final minutes and wondered about his team’s fitness levels, especially being without a trio of injured rotation players in Rob Phinisee and freshmen guards Khristian Lander and Trey Galloway.

“I don’t know if fatigue set in coming down the stretch, but we couldn’t get the stops we needed down the stretch,” he said. “We got lost on the backside and had two guys leaving the rim and one of the guys that was left open was Liddell. It was something that shouldn’t have happened. You can blame it on fatigue or just not being used to be in in this position, but that’s a play you’ve got to close out.”

Ohio State fights off potential for losing streak

Twenty-four games into the season, Ohio State has seven losses but no losing streaks. This was another close call, but the Buckeyes found a way to avoid it.

Asked why this team has been able to avoid dropping consecutive games so far, Holtmann cut the question off.

“E.J., Kyle (Young), Justin (Ahrens), Jamari (Wheeler),” he said. “Our captains. Justice (Sueing). Those five guys. Your captains are the ones that set the tone for that after a loss. Those guys set the tone in the locker room after a loss.”

Quotable

“We’ve just got to make sure we’re doing as good a job as we can getting the ball to our playmakers. Sometimes that changes. E.J. was struggling getting to his spots tonight, and our playmakers have to make the right read. 22 was a fantastic playmaker tonight, both for himself and for others. I give Malaki a lot of credit.  I thought we executed exceptionally well in the last two minutes. I want to give our crowd a lot of love.” – Holtmann

“I just look for the right play. I’m not a guy that really forces up a bad shot. I read the game. It’s slowing down for me so I took my time and E.J. was wide open. I threw it to him and he did the rest.” – Branham, on his assist to Liddell to force overtime

“I’ve said before the season started he’s a bucket-getter. As the year goes on he’s going to get better and better. I feel like he’s seeing the game a lot better and it’s slowing down. He had a great night all around.” – Liddell, on Branham

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy