COLUMBUS — Zed Key’s layup with less than a second remaining saved the day for No. 17 Ohio State, staving off the upset-minded Akron Zips, 66-65, in Tuesday evening’s season opener.
E.J. Liddell led all scorers with 25 points, and he added 11 rebounds for his first double-double of the season. Key was the only other Buckeye to record more than 10 points, scoring 14, none bigger than the final two.
Akron’s Ali Ali scored 15 of his 17 points in the second half, and Xavier Castaneda connected on three of his five three-pointer attempts in the second half to nearly spring the upset.
Key scored the opening eight points of the game for Ohio State as the two teams were tied at 8-8 more than seven minutes into the first half.
Liddell’s three-pointer at the seven-minute mark gave the Buckeyes their largest lead of the first half at 23-17, and the margin would grow to as many as 14 points after back-to-back baskets from transfer Joey Brunk late in the first half.
Down 35-21 in the closing minutes of the half, Akron put together a 7-1 run that cut the Ohio State lead to eight points as the two teams went to halftime.
Liddell led the way with 13 points and eight rebounds in the first half, while Key and Justin Ahrens combined for 15 points. Ohio State shot 50% as a team from the field, but also committed six turnovers to help keep the Zips within reach.
After connecting on just one of its nine three-point attempts in the first half, Akron came out red-hot to begin the final 20 minutes. Following a layup by Enrique Freeman to begin the half, consecutive three-pointers from Castaneda quickly erased the Ohio State lead less than two minutes into the second half.
Liddell responded with a pair of baskets to end the Akron run, but after picking up his third foul at the 17-minute mark, he was forced to the bench shortly thereafter.
As was the case for much of the evening, Ohio State struggled mightily to find scoring with Liddell on the bench. A pair of free throws by Meechie Johnson increased their lead to five points with 14:11 remaining, but the lead would never grow larger as the two teams went back and forth down the stretch.
Akron took its first lead since the first half on another three-pointer from Castaneda, and Ali Ali’s jumper on the ensuing possession had the Zips out in front by three as the clock ticked under seven minutes.
In desperate need of offense outside of Liddell, it was Malaki Branham, in the first game of his college career, who finally stepped up. His corner three evened the score at 55-55 with 5:31 to play, breathing some life into an otherwise anxious crowd.
A pair of free throws and a transition layup from Liddell gave Ohio State a temporary lead a minute later, but Akron again answered right back. A five-point stretch from Ali put the Zips in front, 62-59, with less than three minutes remaining in the game.
On the ropes, Key came up big for Ohio State with a dunk that brought the Buckeyes to within a point, and Branham’s layup on their next possession had them in front by a point as the game approached the final minute of play.
Following a stop on the defensive end, it was Key again attacking the rim and scoring, increasing the lead to 65-62 with 22 seconds to play.
Disaster struck on Akron’s next possession, and a critical defensive blunder by Liddell appeared to have delivered Ohio State its first season-opening loss since 2003. Ali, continuing his monster second half, connected on a three-pointer to tie the game while also drawing a foul from Liddell in the process. His free throw completed a four-point play and had Akron in front, 66-65, with just six seconds to play.
With one last gasp remaining, Ohio State’s Meechie Johnson took the inbound pass and dribbled across halfcourt before head coach Chris Holtmann called a timeout to draw up the final play. Out of the timeout, Ahrens inbounded the ball to Branham, who found Key in position deep in the paint.
After sealing off his defender, Key received an accurate pass from Branham and finished an easy lay-in for the game-winner, sending the crowd inside Value City Arena into a frenzy.
With barely enough time to catch and shoot, a final Akron heave fell harmlessly out of the air as Ohio State players spilled onto the floor in celebration.
Ohio State returns to action on Friday when they host Niagara in Value City Arena. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.