COLUMBUS — Due for a breakout performance, junior forward E.J. Liddell turned in a career-high 34 points to lead No. 13 Ohio State to a 95-87 win over Northwestern in Value City Arena on Sunday evening.
Freshman Malaki Branham, just two games removed from his own 35-point performance, turned in another quality effort of his own, scoring 24 points to aid the cause. Branham and Liddell were the only two Buckeyes to score in double figures.
Off the bench, Cedric Russell chipped in with nine points on a perfect 3-3 shooting from three-point range, part of a 44% team shooting effort from distance for Ohio State (10-3, 4-1).
Northwestern was led by a trio of 20-point scorers in Chase Audige, Pete Nance, and Ty Berry. The trio combined for 63 points in the losing effort, willing Northwestern to remain competitive despite a relentless Ohio State offensive attack.
Ohio State, growing quite familiar with adversity in a season that’s already been full of setbacks, had to overcome more unfortunate news prior to Sunday’s contest. Head coach Chris Holtmann and assistant Brian Pedon both entered COVID protocols prior to the game and were not on the bench for Ohio State, leaving assistant Jake Diebler as the acting head coach.
Following the win, Diebler began his victorious press conference by saying, “It sure helps to have E.J. Liddell … I told him to make us look good on the bench and, boy, did he ever.”
While Branham’s effort on Sunday was another step forward for a player whose growth will be critical to Ohio State’s success at the end of the season, the day belonged to the Buckeyes’ the most indispensable player in Liddell, and fittingly so.
Coming out of the COVID pause that lasted three weeks for Ohio State, Liddell had struggled to find his legs of late, putting together a pair of uncharacteristically subpar performances in their past two games. It was only a matter of time before he returned to the All-American level of play he’s accustomed to enjoying, however, and Northwestern was on the receiving end of that return on Sunday.
In need of a quick start, Liddell was off and running on the first possession of the game, connecting on a midrange jumper to start the scoring. His three-pointer on Ohio State’s next possession gave them an early 5-2 lead, and Liddell was just starting to heat up.
Four of Ohio State’s next five offensive possessions ended in made three-pointers from Liddell, giving him 17 of the team’s first 19 points just five minutes into the game as the lead stretched to 19-11.
Zed Key’s layup at the 14:15 mark gave Ohio State its first double-digit lead of the game at 21-11, and back-to-back three-pointers from Branham and Meechie Johnson minutes later had the Buckeyes out in front by 15.
Threatening to put Northwestern away early, eight first-half turnovers by Ohio State helped the Wildcats to stay in the game. Boo Buie’s three-pointer midway through the first half had them back within seven points before Ohio State stretched the lead back to double digits just before halftime.
A jump hook by Northwestern’s Ryan Young at the buzzer cut the Ohio State lead to 51-39 as the two teams headed to the halftime locker room.
Northwestern (8-5, 1-3) hit Ohio State with a flurry of punches to begin the second half, including a pair of threes from Berry, as part of a 12-2 run that closed the gap to just four points at 55-51 five minutes into the final period.
Ohio State answered right back with a run of their own, and a 13-5 scoring advantage had the Buckeye lead back up to 12 points as the game approached the halfway mark of the second half.
Buie’s layup with 3:18 remaining momentarily got Northwestern to within six points at 84-78, but four consecutive free throws by Jamari Wheeler and another four from Liddell essentially put the game away as the Buckeyes salted away the final two minutes.
“I came into this game with the exact same mindset,” Liddell said following the win. “A lot of people were down on me after two bad games this past week but, truthfully, I just kept my head up, kept playing with confidence, and doing what I know how to do.”
Liddell said of the highs and lows of the past week, “I knew this season was going to be a lot of ups and downs. I wasn’t going to be a perfect player all season. I watch guys like Steph Curry right now, who just broke the three-point record and he’s struggling a little bit. But everyone knows how much he impacts the team, and me as a player, I know I impact the game more than just scoring, and I’m going to keep doing that.”
Ohio State returns to action on Thursday when they travel to take on No. 23 Wisconsin for the second and final meeting of the regular season. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.