Buckeyes Edge Akron Win Season Opener

The 17th ranked men’s basketball team successfully opened their 2021-22 campaign, with a Zed Key bucket just before the horn to down the visiting Akron Zips 67-66 in the Schottenstein Center. The Zips, coached by former Ohio State assistant John Groce, who was also a college teammate to Buckeye coach Chris Holtmann brought a talented and veteran group to Columbus and after falling behind 14 late in the first half, clawed back and pushed Ohio State to the limit before the Key bucket at the rim allowed the Buckeyes to escape with the win. E.J. Liddell led Ohio State with 25 points and 11 rebounds before fouling out with 6 seconds remaining.  Zed Key added 14, with the big one being the game winner. Freshman Malaki Branham came up with a pair of big plays late, also added 7 points and 6 assists. 

The Zips scored on their first two possessions to jump out to a 4-0 lead before back to back buckets at the rim from Zed Key tied it.  Another pair of Akron hoops put the Zips up 8-4, but a short hook from the left block from Key cut the deficit to two at the first media timeout. The Buckeyes got even again when E.J. Liddell put back a Justice Sueing miss and grabbed the lead when Liddell pulled down another offensive rebound and kicked to the perimeter where Justin Ahrens buried a triple to put Ohio State up 11-8. Akron answered with a three of their own before Malaki Branham put the ball on the deck and kicked back to Ahrens on the left wing for another three and Akron took a timeout with Ohio State on top 14-11 with just under 12 minutes remaining in the first half. Akron responded to the timeout by going on a 4-0 run to take a lead by a point before a slick give and go by Liddell and Ahrens led to a Liddell lay in.  The Buckeyes went up three when Malaki Branham found Key on the left block for a lay-in. The Zips cut the lead to one when Ahrens was stripped on the perimeter and it led to a transition lay up and Chris Holtmann wasn’t liking what he was seeing on the offensive end and took a 30 second timeout.  The Buckeyes got back on the board out of the timeout when Sueing tipped in a Key miss to put Ohio State back up three. A Liddell triple from the top of the key gave Ohio State a six point lead. The Zips cut it to four after an Ohio State turnover but Liddell drilled a heavily contested 15 foot fade away from the left wing putting the Buckeyes back up six. Liddell knocked down a free throw, but missed the second and after Key kept the possession alive, his errant shot was tip dunked with authority by Liddell and Ohio State was up 9.  The lead grew to 11 after an Akron turnover led to a Branham short jumper in the paint and Akron took a timeout with Ohio State leading 30-19 and 4:20 to play in the first half and Ohio State on a 7-0 run. Liddell split another pair of freebies upping the run to 8-0 and the lead to 12. The Zips ended the run with a pair of free throws to trim the lead to 10 and ending a 3 plus minute scoring drought. The Buckeyes answered with a short Joey Brunk right hook from just outside the right block and another Brunk bucket mid-paint put Ohio State up 14. Akron wasn’t going away however as six straight Zip points cut the lead to 8 but an Akron technical foul led to Ahrens splitting a pair putting Ohio State up 9. Another Zip free throw trimmed the lead back to 8 as the teams hit the locker room with Ohio State leading 36-28. The Buckeyes shot 50% from the floor in the first 20 minutes, while holding Akron to 42%, including just 1-9 from long range.  The Buckeyes turned Akron over 8 times, while turning it over just 6 times themselves. E.J. Liddell filled the stat sheet in the first half leading Ohio State with 13 points, 8 rebounds and 3 assists. Zed Key added 8 and Justin Ahrens chipped in 7.  Akron was led by K.J. Walton’s 9.


The Zips came out of the locker room on fire and after a bucket and consecutive triples, Akron had scored the first 8 points of the second half to tie the score at 36 forcing Chris Holtmann to call timeout with 18:21 to play in the game with Akron on a 15-1 run going back to the late first half. Liddell isolated on top, dribbled to the left block and backed into the paint and his short jumper fell and Ohio State ended the run and regained a two point lead. Another Liddell short jumper in the paint put the Buckeyes up four, but Liddell had to leave the floor shortly thereafter picking up his third foul. The Zips split a pair of free throws to cut the lead to three, but a Meechie Johnson was fouled attacking the right side of the rim off the bounce and his free throws dropped, extending the Buckeye lead to five. After a Buckeye turnover led to an Akron score in transition, two more Johnson free throws kept the lead at five. Four straight Zip points trimmed the lead to just one as the Buckeyes were a little out of sync offensively without Liddell on the floor and at the under 12 media timeout, were clinging to a 44-43 lead. Liddell, back on the floor after sitting for a few minutes with foul trouble, immediately made his presence felt, putting the ball on the floor and scoring from the right paint, but Akron answered with a triple to tie the score with just over 10 minutes to play. Another Liddell jumper fell, putting Ohio State back on top, but Akron came right back to tie it again. A Gene Brown rebound of a Liddell miss and a put back broke the tie and Akron took a timeout with 8:18 to play and Ohio State clinging to a 50-48 lead a Ohio State was really struggling to shoot the basketball to the tune of just 28% in the second half. A long Akron triple at the end of the shot clock put Akron on top for the first time since midway through the first half. Another Zip bucket after Liddell missed the front end of a one and one, gave the Zips a three point lead. After a Buckeye miss, Jamari Wheeler came up with a steal and was fouled intentionally as he sped up the floor in transition.  Wheeler buried both free throws to bring Ohio State within one. After an empty Buckeye possession, another Zip hoop put Akron up three, but Branham drilled a three from the right corner to tie it with just over 5 minutes to go. Two Zip free throws gave Akron a short-lived lead as Liddell tied the score with a pair of free throws. On the next Akron possession, Johnson knocked the ball loose into the hands of Liddell who raced up the floor for a lay up to give Ohio State a two point lead. An Akron triple put Akron back on top a point and Liddell fouled the screener, not only picking up his fourth foul, but also gave Akron the ball back with a one point lead and just 4:02 left in the game. Another Zip basket put Akron up three with just three minutes to play. The Buckeyes cut the lead to one when Ahrens found Key open at the rim for a dunk. After an Akron miss, Branham banked in a short jumper from just to the right of the paint to put Ohio State back on top with just over a minute to go. Solid half court defense from Ohio State forced Akron into an off-balance three attempt and the Buckeyes secured the rebound and called timeout with 41 seconds to go and Ohio State leading 63-62. Out of the timeout, Branham drove the left paint and his errant shot was put back by Key putting Ohio State up three and the Zips took a timeout with just under 21 seconds showing on the game clock. Akron drilled a three to tie the score and as the shot fell, Liddell was whistled for his fifth and final foul.  The Zips made the free throw to take a one point lead and Ohio State called timeout with just six seconds on the clock. The ball was inbounded to Johnson who raced up the right side of the floor and called timeout just across half court and with 3.2 seconds to go, Ohio State had one last chance. The inbound pass was to Branham and he found Key in the middle of the lane and Key scored at the rim putting Ohio State on top and after an officials conference,  3 tenths of a second was put on the clock.  Akron was unable to get a shot off as the horn sounded with Ohio State escaping with a one point win. 

It was the first game with a largely new, but veteran group, however, it was the freshman, Malaki Branham who had the ball in his hands on three consecutive possessions late in the game. He scored off the glass giving Ohio State a one point lead, his penetration allowed Zed Key to clean up his miss at the rim putting Ohio State up three and finally he had the assist to Key on the game winner. The Buckeyes definitely struggled through stretches in the half court generating offense especially when Liddell wasn’t on the floor, but this game was never going to be easy facing a talented in-state team in their first game of the season. Ohio State didn’t have their full complement of players either. Although Justice Sueing played, he definitely didn’t look totally healthy and playing without Kyle Young, Ohio State struggled at times to find go to players that can create offense. They may have found one in Branham and time will tell how the other guys respond moving forward. There are still a lot of positives that come from a game like this.  First, they got the win which is most important, but they were tested and had the resolve and toughness to survive, which will only make them better as they continue through the season.  There is plenty to work on but it’s always easier coming off a win.

Ohio State will hit the hardwood again on Friday night, hosting Niagara in the Schott at 7 PM and airing on BTN+.

-Jason Harris 

For the Buckeye 50 Season Preview from Jason Harris, click here.

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