COLUMBUS — Looking to get back on track with just two regular season games remaining, No. 22 Ohio State snapped its first two-game losing streak of the season with an 80-69 win over Michigan State on Thursday night.
Malaki Branham led all scorers with 22 points, and E.J. Liddell chipped in with 19 points and eight rebounds to help lead Ohio State to the win. But while Branham and Liddell delivered star efforts in a game in which Ohio State simply had to have it, the two usual suspects were not the story of the game.
Already without Zed Key for a second consecutive game due to an ankle injury, Ohio State could ill afford any more roster attrition. And then Kyle Young was ruled out prior to Thursday’s game due to concussion symptoms, leaving Ohio State without it’s only two consistent post presences and in serious need of someone to step up against a desperate Michigan State team.
Enter Joey Brunk.
Brunk came into Thursday averaging just a single point per game while not having played more than five minutes since a Feb. 6 win over Maryland. Ever ready for his number to be called, all Brunk did was score 18 points —two shy of his career high — and grab six rebounds in a season-high 32 minutes of action.
At one point, Brunk received chants of “MVP” from the Ohio State faithful in attendance, and every touch he got in the post sent a charge through the arena as the crowd waited to erupt with another basket. Following the game, Brunk said of his performance and what he thought about the love he was getting from the crowd, “(It was) pretty damn cool.”
Ohio State came out of the gates swinging, connecting on the first four shots it attempted en route to an 11-0 lead just over two minutes into the game. Branham began the run on Ohio State’s first possession of the evening, hitting a three-pointer to open the scoring.
Following a turnover by Michigan State’s Julius Marble, Liddell found the bottom of the net on his first three-point attempt of the game as well, putting Ohio State out in front 6-0 in the early going.
Liddle continued his early scoring flurry on Ohio State’s next two possessions, adding a tough fallaway jumper and his second three of the night to force Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo to call a timeout.
Eugene Brown’s floater out of the timeout increased the Ohio State scoring run to 13-0 before Michigan State’s A.J. Hoggard finally got Michigan State on the board and ended the Spartans’ drought.
Hoggard’s basket did little to cool off the Ohio State offense, which continued to knock down shots seemingly every trip down the floor. Following a turnover by Hoggard, Wheeler connected on his first three-pointer of the evening to increase the lead to 16-2 just four minutes into the game.
Brunk added his first field goal, sandwiched between a pair of Michigan State baskets, just before the first media timeout as Ohio State took a sizable 18-6 lead into the first break.
A 10-4 run by Michigan State allowed the Spartans to gain their footing while cutting the Ohio State lead to 22-16 as the first half neared the halfway mark.
Michigan State continued to battle its way back into the game, and Gabe Brown’s three-pointer brought the Spartans to within four points with still more than nine minutes to play.
It was Brown again knocking down a three-pointer a few possessions later as part of a 23-11 Spartan run that had cut the Ohio State lead to 27-25 heading into the under-eight media timeout.
Out of the timeout, Ohio State went right back to Brunk, who hit on a jump hook to dampen the Michigan State momentum. The basket sparked a 9-0 Ohio State run that increased the lead back to 11 points at 36-25, and the Buckeyes maintained the double digit lead heading into halftime.
Ohio State scored the first four points of the second half on made jumpers by Liddell and Branham to increase the lead to 47-33 just a minute into the seccond period, and Michigan State never truly threatened again.
Max Christie’s three-pointer at the 17:15 mark momentarily gave Michigan State some life with the deficit closed to 10 points, but the Ohio State offensive attack wouldn’t relent. A five-point spurt by Ohio State, including four points from Branham, pushed the lead right back to 15 points just two minutes later, and the Buckeyes were in cruise control from there.
As a rather festive atmoshphere broke out in Value City Arena over the final minutes, Branham’s drive and highlight slam over two Michigan State defenders with 5:10 remaining sent the crowd into a frenzy, putting an emphatic cap on a strong performance by Ohio State.
Not to be outdone, however, Brunk had a highlight of his own ready to be served up to the waiting crowd with less than two minutes remaining.
As if delivering an encore to a performance he nor Ohio State fans will likely soon forget, Brunk found himself wide open at the top of the paint with a pass from Branham heading his way. Brunk received the pass and rose for a uncontested two-handed slam that sent the Ohio State faithful into a thunderous celebration as the final seconds ticked down.
Following the game, Brown admitted Brunk wasn’t even a part of the team’s scouting report heading into the game, nor did he show up much on film. However, Holtmann said that while he might not have been expecting Brunk to impact the game as heavily as he did, the game plan was certainly crafted with Brunk heavily included.
“We did come in thinking he was going to be a guy we were actually going to run stuff for, partly because we’ve seen it in practice, we’ve seen him score consistently in practice, so we did feel like he was capable of that … Now, he was probably even better than we thought (tonight), but we did go in saying we need to utilize him,” Holtmann said.
Holtmann went on to say of Brunk’s performance, “I’m just so happy for the kid. I don’t know that he surprised me with his ability to score because I’ve seen that for a couple of years and I’ve seen it in practice. The reality is we’ve had a little bit of depth there (at that position), so it’s kind of forced him to the bench more than I would have liked and, I’m sure, more than he would have liked. It’s an unbelievable testament to the kid.”
With the win, Ohio State improves to 19-9 on the season and 12-7 in conference play. Ohio State will close out its regular season on Sunday when they host the Michigan Wolverines at 12 p.m.
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.