Ohio State Freshman Malaki Branham Makes Game-Winning Assist, Big Bucket Late in Impressive Collegiate Debut

By Griffin Strom on November 9, 2021 at 11:03 pm
Malaki Branham

The question of who would have the ball in their hands to facilitate offense for Ohio State late in games without Duane Washington this year remained unanswered entering Tuesday’s season opener.

Chris Holtmann said in the preseason he expected Justice Sueing to be a primary playmaker for the Buckeyes down the stretch of games. But hobbled by a lingering lower-leg injury against Akron, the fifth-year senior forward was not himself on Tuesday.

Surely the ball would have to find its way to E.J. Liddell in a final-shot scenario, but with 3.2 seconds remaining in a 66-65 Akron-led ballgame at the Schottenstein Center, the Buckeyes’ star forward had already fouled out.

Instead, with the game on the line, the Buckeyes drew up a play to get the ball to a player that entered the night without a single minute of college basketball experience.

True freshman guard Malaki Branham started nearly under the basket on Ohio State’s side out-of-bounds set piece before using a Zed Key screen to get open at the top of the floor. Justin Ahrens inbounded him the ball, and Branham was quick and decisive with it. The Columbus native zipped a pass in to Key between two Akron defenders in the paint, and the sophomore forward laid the ball in with just a fraction of a second remaining.

“I think if we’d have lost, I probably would’ve questioned myself in a lot of ways,” Holtmann said after the game. “I’m glad Malaki made that decision.”

It was not the only big play Branham came up with during his first-ever college basketball game.

With 90 seconds left in a game in which Ohio State trailed Akron 62-61, Branham found himself with the ball on the wing. Branham surveyed the court, took two power dribbles to his right to rub off a screen from Liddell and then backed his man down to the block. Branham raised up with a soft jumper off the glass that found the bottom of the net.

Ohio State had retaken the lead with 1:28 to play.

“I was searching for lineups and for offense, because normally that would be a guy like Justice,” Holtmann said. “I think I’m gonna be searching some in this situation this year. We put the ball in the hands of a freshman, and I probably didn’t anticipate doing that as much late as much as we did. But I thought he made good decisions.”

Branham didn’t have a huge offensive explosion to announce himself to Buckeye fans and the college basketball world at large. The freshman finished with just seven points in the win. However, the poise he showed late in a razor-close game might have been even more impressive than a big scoring night in a blowout.

Every play Branham made down the stretch on Tuesday felt like a big one. The Buckeyes trailed the Zips by three points with 5:31 to play, but Branham didn’t hesitate on a contested catch-and-shoot 3-point attempt from the corner when Jamari Wheeler tossed him the ball. The shot hit no iron, and tied the game up 55-all.

“We’ve seen glimpses of that with Malaki. We have,” Holtmann said. “And we’ve talked as a coaching staff that the ball may need to be in his hands some late, particularly as Justice gets healthier. But I think Meechie (Johnson) is gonna have some of those moments as well, obviously E.J. But we have seen some glimpses of good decision-making, ability to play off ball screens. As much as anything in those situations, you’re looking for guys that can get to their spots against physical pressure, and he can get to his spots pretty well.”

Branham finished with six rebounds, three assists, a block, a steal and just one turnover to go along with his scoring contributions in 24 minutes in his debut. In fact, Branham finished with the highest plus/minus of any Buckeye on Tuesday, with his +10 mark being seven points better than any other player on the team.

One could forgive a freshman for having the jitters before and during the first college game of his career, and especially one that was as close as Tuesday’s wire-to-wire finish. But Holtmann said Branham’s demeanor was stone cold throughout.

“He don’t seem real nervous. Ever,” Holtmann said. “He seems kind of the same. My biggest thing with Malaki right now is he can get on himself too much and he can hang his head when he makes mistakes. But I haven’t seen a whole lot of nerves from him.”

As much credit as Branham deserves for making the game-winning play against Akron, Key deserves his share as well for actually making the layup. Holtmann made sure to give the second-year big man his due after the game.

Still, Holtmann won’t let Key forget who made the play happen, either. 

“He’s a tremendous kid, and I’m happy for him. I really am,” Holtmann said. “I’m happy to see a sophomore have a moment like that. 

“Hopefully he pointed to a pretty good passer.”

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