Ohio State entered Tuesday having not lost a season-opening game since 2003-04, and the Buckeyes kept that streak alive by the skin of their teeth against Akron.
The Buckeyes had a final shot to win the game down 66-65 with 3.2 seconds remaining on the clock, and freshman guard Malaki Branham found sophomore forward Zed Key inside for a layup to take the lead. With 0.2 seconds left on the clock thereafter, Akron could not score to win the game, resulting in a 67-66 win for Ohio State.
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With six seconds left in the game, the Buckeyes were holding onto a three-point lead when Zips forward Ali Ali converted a four-point play, hitting a three and drawing the fifth foul of the night on Ohio State’s E.J. Liddell.
Liddell finished with 25 points on the night to lead the Buckeyes, but Key scored six of the final eight points for Ohio State – all of them big – in order to secure the win. Key finished with 14 points on 7-for-11 shooting.
An eight-point halftime lead was not enough cushion to avoid a second-half comeback from John Groce and the Zips, who took a three-point lead over the Buckeyes with 3:19 to play. But a subsequent Key dunk and a floater off the glass from Branham with 1:27 to play gave Ohio State a 63-62 lead, and another Key hoop on a putback the next time down the floor extended the advantage to three.
Trading baskets back and forth for most of the second half, Liddell appeared to steal momentum back in the favor of Ohio State with 4:26 to play. On the next possession after tying the game 57-all with two free throws, Liddell picked up a loose ball on defense and converted a breakaway and-one. Liddell missed the subsequent free throw, but the Buckeyes took a two-point lead on the sequence.
However, Akron answered with a three-point make from Ali to take the lead right back. A fallaway baseline jumper from Ali a couple possessions later extended the lead to three points with less than three minutes remaining in the game.
Before two minutes passed in the second half, Akron tied things up 36-36 courtesy of an 8-0 run that featured back-to-back threes from Zips guard Xavier Castaneda.
|26-60 (43.3%)||FGM-FGA (PCT.)||25-58 (43.1%)|
|4-14 (28.6%)||3PM-3PA (PCT.)||7-22 (31.8%)|
|11-16 (68.8%)||FTM-FTA (PCT.)||9-12 (41.7%)|
Liddell answered with back-to-back buckets to retake the lead for the Buckeyes, but picked up his third foul thereafter and was forced to take a seat at the 17-minute mark. Ohio State struggled to score without Liddell on the floor, but upon re-entering the game six minutes later, the star forward immediately knocked in a basket for the Buckeyes.
On a Liddell miss at the 8:25 mark, Eugene Brown scored his first points of the season on an offensive rebound and putback to give the Buckeyes a 50-48 edge over Akron.
However, Akron answered with another three from Castaneda that clanked off the iron but then fell through the net to give the Zips a 51-50 lead.
Three Zips finished with double-digit points on the night, including a team-high 17 from Ali, but it was not enough to spoil the Buckeyes’ season opener.
Ohio State went to the locker room up 36-28 following a first half in which the Buckeyes shot 50 percent from the floor and hit half of their three-point attempts.
The Buckeyes separated themselves with a 17-4 run through the latter stages of the first half, and back-to-back inside buckets from Joey Brunk put Ohio State up as many as 14 points with 2:19 to play. However, Akron answered with a 6-0 run of its own following the second Brunk make.
Liddell was the story of the first half for Ohio State, though, as the junior forward scored 13 points and pulled down eight boards to lead the game in both categories. Liddell shot 5-for-7 from the floor, hit his first three-point attempt of the season and rattled off seven straight points for Ohio State during the aforementioned 17-4 run.
Branham’s first basket as a Buckeye, coming on a putback off his own miss, put Ohio State up 30-19 at the 4:20 mark following the flurry from Liddell.
Making just his second career start for the Buckeyes, Key scored the opening six points of the game for Ohio State, hitting his first three shots inside while the rest of the team started 0-for-5. Key finished the first half with eight points.
With the score knotted at 8-all seven minutes into the first half, Ahrens helped bring life to the Buckeye offense with a pair of three-point makes in a span of three possessions. The second Ahrens three-pointer gave Ohio State a 14-11 lead with 11:53 to play in the opening half.
A 1-for-9 first half from three-point range for the Zips did not aid their effort early on.
What's next: The Buckeyes take on Niagara at the Schottenstein Center Friday, with a tip-off scheduled for 7 p.m. in Columbus.
- Akron head coach John Groce was Holtmann’s college teammate at Taylor University, and hired Holtmann as his lead assistant at Ohio in 2008. The pair have gone head-to-head as college head coaches one time before, when Holtmann’s Gardner-Webb team played Groce’s Illinois Fighting Illini in 2012.
- The last time Ohio State lost a season opener or a home opener both took place during the 2003-04 season, which was Jim O’Brien’s last as head coach of the Buckeyes. Ohio State lost to San Francisco and Georgia Tech in those matchups.
- Jamari Wheeler, Meechie Johnson, Justin Ahrens, E.J. Liddell and Zed Key started the game for the Buckeyes, and Justice Sueing and Malaki Branham were the first two players in off the bench.