The last time the Ohio State (9-2, 3-0 B1G) men’s basketball team played a game they defeated Wisconsin 73-55 at Value City Arena. The really important detail about that game is that it took place on December 11, over three weeks ago.
Since then the Buckeyes have had three-consecutive games cancelled due to Covid concerns. Games against Kentucky, Tennessee Martin and New Orleans were all cancelled due to a Covid outbreak on the OSU roster. Not only did the team not play any games during that period, but also could not conduct much in the way of practices. During that three week stretch OSU had just three practices with enough players available to conduct a practice that had any semblance of a normal practice.
Needless to say, when they took the court in Lincoln, Nebraska, tonight to take on the CornHuskers some rustiness was expected, and at times OSU’s play was reminiscent of that old Ford pickup truck that wasted away out behind Grandpa’s garage when you were a kid. OSU turned the ball over, had trouble defending the dribble-drive, and missed shots that have been falling all season. Leading scorer E;J. Liddell was ice cold from the field and Zed Key was being double-teamed every time he touched the basketball.
Luckily for OSU, not all their parts were rusty. In fact, one part in particular, freshman guard Malaki Branham, shined like a gleaming piece of highly polished steel. Branham, who went scoreless in his last game against Wisconsin, went off for a career-high 35 points to prevent the Buckeyes from being blown out by Nebraska. Branham had 21 of OSU’s 34 points in the first half. His previous high game had been 11 points. Branham got his scoring by playing within the offense and taking what was given. Nebraska elected to double both Key and Liddell, often leaving Branham open for uncontested threes that he knocked down. When Nebraska tried to play up on him at the three point line he put the ball on the floor to get close to the basket for easy short-range shots.
Thanks mostly to Branham’s outburst OSU lead at the half 34-32. The Buckeyes clung to a small lead for the first 12 minutes or so of the second half, but Nebraska took the lead as the game wound down and led by five late in the game at 72-67 with under a minute to play. That’s when OSU’s improbable run started.
Jamari Wheeler hit a three-pointer for OSU to cut the lead to 72-70 with 28 seconds remaining in regulation. The Huskers then missed two free throws with 22 seconds on the clock leaving the score at 72-70. Liddell, who had trouble scoring all night, was fouled with just under nine seconds remaining and went to the line to shoot two. He made them both to tie the game. Nebraska had a chance for a winning bucket close in under the basket as time ran out in regulation, but OSU guard Eugene Brown got a key block to send the game into overtime tied at 72.
Wheeler hit another three to open the scoring in overtime and put OSU up 75-72. The Buckeyes got a defensive stop and Meechie Johnson hit another three to put OSU up 78-72. Nebraska answered with a three of their own, but Wheeler hit yet another three to put OSU up 81-75. Two free throws cut OSU’s lead to 81-77, but that would be as close as the Cornhuskers would get. Branham hit a jumper to make it 83-77 with 39.9 seconds left to play. Liddell then made both ends of a one and one to give OSU an 85-77 lead. The Huskers added a layup with 18.8 remaining to make it 85-79, but Justin Ahrens closed out the scoring with two free throws with 16 seconds remaining to give OSU the hard-fought 87-79 overtime win.
Photo courtesy of Ohiostatebuckeyes.com