Ohio State basketball: Freshman’s growth likely key to successful March

COLUMBUS -- However far Ohio State basketball is going to go this season will be as far as E.J. Liddell and Malaki Branham take the Buckeyes.

Or perhaps more likely both.

ExploreOhio State pulls away from Indiana late in overtime

Monday night they combined to save Ohio State from an upset loss to Indiana when Branham found Liddell for a game-tying dunk with six seconds left in regulation.

Branham then tied the game with a basket in overtime before setting up Jamari Wheeler’s go-ahead 3-pointer, a wide-open shot that gave the Buckeyes the lead for good with just under three minutes left.

The Buckeyes ultimately made their free throws in the final minute to pull away for an 80-69 win over the Hoosiers that kept Ohio State in the race for the Big Ten championship and a solid seed for the NCAA Tournament.

They also avoided a two-game home losing streak 48 hours after losing to Iowa.

“This win was important, but I try not to look too far ahead, and we didn’t wallow in the loss on Saturday,” head coach Chris Holtmann said. “You can’t in this league. You’ve got to keep moving forward.”

That Branham, who was named Ohio’s Mr. Basketball last season as a senior at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary, can score is no surprise, but his play-making has been a season-long project according to Holtmann.

“He is completely different,” Holtmann said of Branham in February vs. Branham in November. “He’s worked at it. He’s taken coaching. He’s taken criticism. He’s found a way to get better, and that is a sign of maturity.”

Liddell is Ohio State’s best player and a candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year, but Indiana made the 6-foot-7 forward earn his 16 points with double-teams and long-armed defenders.

The junior missed nine of his 15 shots, but his young counterpart picked up the slack.

Branham made nine of his 13 shots and all eight of his free throw attempts en route to 27 points.

He became the team’s primary ball-handler in the final minutes of regulation as Ohio State tried to recover from a 20-5 run that put Indiana ahead six.

“We’ve evolved into that a lot here in the past month,” Holtmann said. “We weren’t that way at the beginning of the year because his game wasn’t at that point. It was still a little too fast for him.”

Branham admitted he is still learning to run the show, but he concentrates on finding the right play for each situation.

“I’m not a guy that forces up a bad shot,” he said. “I just kind of read the game.”

As the No. 1 player in Ohio high school basketball last season and a top 40 national prospect, Branham arrived with high expectations.

He has had some typical freshman ups and downs, but three of his five 20-point games have come in the past seven, so the best might be yet to come.

Liddell said his confidence in the youngster has never wavered.

“I said before the season even started on the first media day he was a bucket-getter,” Liddell said. “As the year goes on, he’s going to keep getting better and better. I feel like he’s seeing the game a lot better. It’s slowing down. And he just had a great night all around.”

Liddell (19.5 points per game) and Branham (11.8 ppg.) are the two highest-rated recruits on the roster, so their status as the team’s top two scorers is not a surprise.

What remains to be seen is who will take the lead among the supporting cast as the regular season winds down.

Thanks to the need to reschedule multiple games that were postponed because of COVID-19, they are looking at a busy finish to the regular season.

That begins Thursday night at No. 15 Illinois and continues Sunday at Maryland.

The Buckeyes also have three games next week, all at home. They play a rescheduled game against Nebraska on Tuesday then host Michigan State two days later with the regular season finale scheduled against Michigan on March 6.


Ohio State at Illinois, 9 p.m., Fox Sports 1, 1410

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