COLUMBUS — With Sunday’s shocking loss at Maryland firmly in the rearview mirror, Tuesday’s matchup against lowly Nebraska figured to be the perfect opportunity for No. 22 Ohio State to get back on track with just three regular-season games remaining.
Instead, Ohio State suffered its worst loss of the season —and one of the worst in recent memory — by falling to Nebraska, 78-70, in Value City Arena. The consecutive losses, to two teams with nine combined Big Ten wins, marks the first time this season Ohio State has lost consecutive games.
E.J. Liddell finished with 27 points to lead Ohio State, and Malaki Branham added 16 points in the loss. Playing without Zed Key, whose ankle injury suffered on Sunday kept him out of the game, Ohio State got very little production from the rest of the lineup. Jimmy Sotos added eight points off the bench as the third-highest scorer for Ohio State.
Nebraska’s Bryce McGowens scored 14 of his team-high 26 points in the second half, and C.J. Wilcher contributed 13 first-half points and finished with 15. As a team, Nebraska shot 49% from the field while holding Ohio State to just a 39% shooting night.
Liddell got Ohio State on the board on its first possession of the game, hitting a tough fallaway jumper for his first points of the evening. Kyle Young added his first points of the game on Ohio State’s next possession, finishing through contact at the rim to give them an early 4-2 lead.
Ohio State went cold over the next three minutes, making just one of their next eight shots as Nebraska took a 9-6 lead into the first media timeout.
Back-to-back baskets by Liddell, including his first three-pointer of the game, pushed Ohio State back out in front, 13-12, as the first half ticked below 13 minutes.
Ohio State opened up a 26-19 lead midway through the opening period on a flurry of three-pointers on three consecutive possessions. Branham got the run started with his first three-pointer of the game, and Sotos, seeing rare first-half minutes, connected for his first made three since Feb. 15.
Justin Ahrens continued to the long-distance assault on the next Ohio State possession, delivering a ball fake that got his defender in the air before sidestepping and drilling his first attempt of the game. With Ohio State on a 9-2 run, Nebraska head coach Fred Hoiberg was forced to call a timeout with 9:28 remaining in the half to stem the tide.
The timeout served Hoiberg and the Huskers well as Ohio State again went ice cold for a prolonged stretch. A pair of threes from Wilcher brought Nebraska back to three at 28-25 as the misses continued to pile up for Ohio State on the other end.
Branham’s jumper with 9:28 remaining was Ohio State’s lone field goal for the next nine minutes as Nebraska battled back to take a 38-34 lead with 2:30 left in the half.
McGowens’ three-pointer with 42 seconds remaining gave Nebraska its biggest lead of the game at 43-36 as Ohio State still couldn’t get a shot to fall.
Branham’s three-pointer on Ohio State’s final possession of the half finally ended the nine-minute field goal drought, cutting the Nebraska lead to 43-39 as the two teams headed into the locker room.
Led by Wilcher’s team-high 13 points, Nebraska finished the first half shooting 56% from the field, including a 6-12 effort from three.
Liddell and Branham combined for 23 points in the first half to keep Ohio State within striking distance despite a lackluster half that would prove to be indicative of things to come.
The shooting disparity continued between the two teams to begin the second half as Ohio State missed on its first three attempts while Nebraska hit on four of its first seven attempts to build the lead. McGowens’ jumper, part of a 10-4 Nebraska run, increased the lead to double digits at 53-43 nearly five minutes into the second half.
Already without the post presence of Key, the hits continued to come for Ohio State in the second half as Young was ruled out the remainder of the game with an illness. Former walk-on Harrison Hoofkin temporarily checked in for Ohio State in the absence of Young as head coach Chris Holtmann searched for defensive answers that simply weren’t coming.
Sotos’ three-pointer cut the Nebraska lead to six points midway through the second half, but as was always the case down the stretch, Nebraska had a quick answer. On the ensuing possession, McGowens drove and finished at the rim while drawing a foul to head to the line.
McGowens’ made free throw completed the three-point play and pushed Nebraska’s lead back to nine points at 64-55 with 9:06 to play.
Three consecutive free throws by Liddell again had Ohio State within six points with 7:15 to play, but Verge Jr.’s three-pointer kept the Huskers in front by nine as the game continued to grow later.
It Was Verge Jr. again keeping Ohio State at bay with 4:09 remaining, finishing on a fastbreak layup to maintain Nebraska’s nine-point lead. A possession later, his two free throws had Nebraska back in front by double digits as the clock ticked below three minutes to play.
Ohio State cut the lead to 73-69 with 55 seconds remaining on a pair of free throws by Branham, but that’s as close as they’d get as Nebraska slammed the door on the shocking upset with three consecutive free throws.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.