“Moments Like These, We Live For”: E.J. Liddell Gets The Better Of Illinois As He Rounds Into Form At Perfect Time For Ohio State

By Colin Hass-Hill on March 6, 2020 at 12:49 am
E.J. Liddell

The Schottenstein Center scoreboard showed 18.4 seconds when Danny Hummer, a walk-on from Upper Arlington, marched onto the court.

As he walked onto the court, the crowd of Ohio State fans collectively rose to its feet. CJ Walker yelled, “Come on,” as he shot his right hand into the air twice, signaling everybody still in the building for the end of the Buckeyes’ 71-63 win against Illinois on Thursday to show Hummer love. He, along with fellow senior Andre Wesson, was playing his final home game as a Buckeye.

While Hummer got his rightful due, E.J. Liddell strolled off the court, subbing out of the game. Had it been any occasion other than Senior Night, the cheers still would have come, but they would have been directed in Liddell’s direction. Chris Holtmann, after watching the freshman forward put together the best all-around performance of his young career, stopped Liddell on his walk back to the bench. 

“Moments like these, we live for,” Liddell remembers Holtmann telling him.

The two-time Illinois Mr. Basketball securing his first career double-double by recording a career-high-tying 17 points, career-high 11 rebounds, ferocious block and resounding put-back dunk, sending his seniors off with an eight-point win and beating his home-state team in the final game at the Schott of the regular season?

Yeah, it sounds as though that might qualify as a moment Liddell lives for.

“I thought today his offense and his defense were critical,” Holtmann said. “I mean, he was phenomenal.”

Whenever Ohio State needed a jolt on Thursday, Liddell seemed to come through.

Early in the game when the Buckeyes couldn’t seem to find consistent offense elsewhere, he was the only player on his team to score for a nearly eight-minute stretch, doing what he could to keep the Illini from pulling out to an insurmountable lead. When the Buckeyes began to come back from their 11-point first-half deficit, he’s the one who fired up the crowd with a dunk. Liddell finished a put-back slam for the go-ahead points in the second half before sending a shot from Alan Griffin into the stands a few minutes later.

With 58 seconds remaining, he tapped in Walker’s missed transition layup to increase Ohio State’s lead to seven points, ending the Illini’s hopes of a comeback.

“I feel like the game has slowed down a lot,” Liddell said. “Knowing personnel, just knowing what you've got to go out there and do and just embracing your role. And that took me a while. And I feel like I'm still getting there and embracing my role.”

Only a week-and-a-half ago, Liddell’s role changed.

When Kyle Young suffered a high ankle sprain late in the first half of Ohio State’s win against Maryland, it didn’t take a genius to know Liddell would see increased minutes. Among healthy, eligible players, the frontcourt suddenly only consisted of Kaleb Wesson, Andre Wesson, Justin Ahrens, Ibrahima Diallo and Liddell. With the Wesson brothers starting, Ahrens still needing to improve his defense to play consistent minutes and Diallo not quite ready to play meaningful time in Big Ten games, Liddell suddenly became the third of three forwards in the rotation.

The freshman had been in this exact position before.

When Young missed two January games, Ohio State turned to Liddell to somewhat make up for what it had lost, and he didn’t exactly respond the way the coaches hoped. In losses to Wisconsin and Maryland, he had four points (1-for-5), four rebounds and seven fouls.

This time, as Liddell has shown, he’s been ready for the moment. Coming off of a career-high 17-point game against Iowa, he secured three key offensive boards to help beat Maryland, blocked five shots on the road against Nebraska, then had four points and four rebounds against Michigan. 

After the Buckeyes topped the Wolverines, Ryan Day addressed the hoops team in the locker room and singled out Liddell – who at one point dreamed of playing football for Ohio State. The way Holtmann retells the story, Day pointed at Liddell and said, “'Listen, I see you getting better.'”

Day evidently had a keen eye.

“My guess is he just has a greater understanding of how hard and physical you have to play in this league,” Holtmann said. “It's different than non-conference, right? It just is. The Big Ten, it's just different.”

To Holtmann, Liddell going nuts against Illinois on Thursday didn’t exactly come as a total surprise.

For about five weeks, he said, it’s been clear that “he’s coming.” The breakthrough just so happened to have come exactly when the Buckeyes needed it.

“I don't know that you ever project 17 and 11 for a freshman,” Holtmann said. “But we've been really confident in him all year. It's just in this last month we've seen it. Now with Kyle out, we've been able to see it even more so with steadier minutes.”

Ohio State, a somehow broken-down yet surging Big Ten team that has won nine of its past 11 games, will need everything it can get out of Liddell down the stretch.

If Young returns soon, the Buckeyes would have a suddenly even more intriguing frontcourt with a multitude of lineup combinations – many of which could feature the freshman. If the “significant” high ankle sprain keeps him out a while, Liddell would remain a cog in what has become a six-man rotation, and his minutes could even increase.

Either way, he’s key to Ohio State’s postseason hopes. As the Buckeyes have gained momentum, he individually has, too. Liddell went from a top-50 overall recruit to a first-year forward who showed periodic flashes of brilliance, and now he has become a more consistent promising young talent beginning to come into his own as the stage gets even bigger.

“We are constantly trying to identify guys that we feel like really, really fit us, and we are pursuing those guys with all of our heart and all the stuff we can bring,” Holtmann said. “He, from Day 1, we felt like that with him. And from Day 1, that's been confirmed in our minds every day. He is very much our kind of guy. He's a tremendous kid who's only going to get better.”

Next year? Who knows. Liddell might lead the Buckeyes in scoring – especially if Kaleb Wesson leaves for the NBA. 

But he doesn’t have to wait at all to secure an important role on a winning team. It’s here now, and on Thursday he showed the latest signs that he belongs.

“Now we've got to see if he can keep doing that,” Holtmann said.

“He also pushes me to be the best I can be,” Liddell said, “and I'm not there yet and still got a lot of more growing to do and a lot of more getting coached by him.”

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