Two numbers seemed serendipitous at halftime on Sunday.
Twenty minutes into Ohio State’s 95-87 win over Northwestern, the Buckeyes had already put 51 points on the board, the same figure they mustered all game against Indiana just three days before.
By the intermission against the Wildcats, Ohio State forward E.J. Liddell had already poured in 21 points on 8-for-11 shooting – the same total he had against Indiana and Nebraska combined as he struggled through a shooting slump in the past two games.
The Buckeyes hadn’t had much trouble scoring this season before Thursday, but Chris Holtmann pointed out after the Indiana loss that it was Ohio State’s poor offensive effort – its worst of the season, statistically – that doomed the Buckeyes in their first loss in six weeks. The Buckeye head coach may not have been there to see his team live on Sunday, as he was unavailable due to health and safety protocols, but Ohio State’s performance against Northwestern seemed like a direct response to its shortcomings earlier in the week.
“It was just a matter of time before we were gonna play better offensively,” acting head coach Jake Diebler said after the win. “Our guys didn’t lose confidence, we stayed with what we know. But I think also our bench contributions; Meechie Johnson and Cedric Russell … Malaki (Branham) was certainly really good, E.J. was really good. I thought Kyle Young played with a pop and a force and an activity that we love about him and he’s certainly capable of. Zed Key did some things really well.”
Ohio State shot 66.7 percent in the first half to power the scarlet and gray to a season-high 51 first-half points, and the Buckeyes’ 95-point final total was their most since Dec. 7, 2019 – a day on which Ohio State scored 106 against Penn State.
Liddell was the spark plug for the Buckeyes, scoring 17 of the team’s first 19 points. He did not miss a shot until his seventh attempt of the night. Liddell hit five 3-pointers in a row during that stretch, which all took place within the opening five minutes of the night.
But it was not all Liddell thereafter. Freshman guard Malaki Branham, who led Ohio State in scoring in each of the past two games entering Sunday during Liddell’s slump, hit four of his five first-half shot attempts to finish with 13 points in the first 20 minutes. Branham logged more minutes (18) than any of his Buckeye teammates in the first half, and he shot a perfect 4-for-4 from the free-throw line as well.
“Against Indiana, some of the shots were going in and out, but the coaches just told me, ‘Keep being aggressive,’ so I tried to just do the same thing this game,” Branham said.
Branham and Liddell combined to score 34 of Ohio State’s first 51 points by halftime, and the duo connected on 75 percent of their shots. No other Buckeye had more than six points in the first half, but Zed Key, Cedric Russell, Meechie Johnson, Jamari Wheeler and Kyle Young collectively missed just a single shot.
Liddell cooled off in the second half, relatively speaking, but still scored 13 points to close the game out with a career-high 34 for the Buckeyes. Liddell shot 12-for-20 overall, which was a welcome sight for Ohio State following a two-game stretch that saw him shoot a dismal 5-for-26.
“I felt a little bit more in shape, honestly,” Liddell said. “Still trying to get back into the definite shape I was in before the pause, because that was a pretty long break – no games and whatnot. But I came into this game with the same mindset, honestly. A lot of people were doubting me after two bad games this past week, but truthfully I just kept my head up and just kept playing with confidence and doing what I had to do.”
Branham finished with 24 points for the game, his second-most as a Buckeye after torching the Huskers for a whopping 35 seven days before, and the first-year wing knocked down 13 of his 14 free-throw attempts to boot. Branham shot 5-for-8 from the floor and dished out five assists.
Even a 45.8 percent clip as a team in the second half could only sink the Buckeyes to a full-game average of 56.9 percent shooting, which is the second-best figure Ohio State has posted all season. The performance stood in stark juxtaposition to the Buckeyes’ effort in Bloomington, in which Ohio State shot its lowest percentage of the year (30.8) amid its worst scoring night of the year. The Buckeyes were nearly perfect from the free-throw line as well on Sunday, where they went 26-for-27 by the end of the game.
Another encouraging sight for the Buckeye coaching staff was the markedly improved differential in points in the paint, which was one of the most crucial factors in the Buckeyes’ demise against the Hoosiers. Ohio State was outscored 38-10 on the interior against Trayce Jackson-Davis and company, but outscored Northwestern 32-20 inside.
To nitpick the Buckeyes’ performance, one could point to their 14 turnovers, which continue to be an issue for the group, or its 14 missed 3-point attempts. But Justin Ahrens accounted for five of those misses himself, and without his 0-for-5 night, Ohio State would have shot 55 percent from three and 63 percent overall.
Any concerns about conditioning on the heels of the Buckeyes’ recent 22-day COVID-19 layoff seem to have dissipated after Sunday’s showing, and Ohio State has certainly returned to its pre-break form – at least on offense.
“We definitely needed this one to get our hopes up a little bit,” Liddell said.
Now Ohio State must show it can put forth similar efforts on a consistent basis throughout Big Ten play, even if replicating the pace of its Sunday performance may prove a challenging task moving forward.