E.J. Liddell went first.
The Buckeyes’ junior forward could hardly have gotten off to a hotter start Sunday, sinking six straight shots and five straight threes to score 17 of Ohio State’s first 19 points against Northwestern – and that was in the opening five minutes alone.
But even an individual performance as impressive as the one Liddell put on Sunday isn’t enough to guarantee a win over a Big Ten opponent. The Buckeyes were still up only eight points on the Wildcats after Liddell’s game-opening barrage, and he scored just four more points through the final 15 minutes of the half.
That’s when the true freshman took his turn.
Malaki Branham scored five of Ohio State’s next seven points after Liddell’s first 17, and finished the first half with 13 points of his own. By the end of the game, which featured plenty of resilience from the Wildcats in a losing effort, the first-year guard had racked up 24 points to complement Liddell’s career-high 34. Ohio State finished with a 95-87 win in Columbus.
A week after he put the Big Ten on notice in Lincoln, Nebraska, Branham’s 35-point performance against the Huskers is looking less and less like a one-off.
“He’s kind of become that second guy now, which makes them very dangerous,” Northwestern head coach Chris Collins said after the game. “Him and E.J. today, they go for 58 points. You get two guys that get 58, it's gonna be really tough to beat. If he can consistently kind of be that second scorer, and then they have the other pieces with Zed (Key) inside and Justin (Ahrens) shooting threes and what Kyle (Young) brings and Jamari (Wheeler)’s such a heady veteran point guard, they become very difficult to beat.”
Branham earned Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors for the second straight week Monday. He averaged 18.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and four assists per game as the Buckeyes split a pair of games against Indiana and Northwestern over the past week. Including his breakout showcase at Nebraska, Branham is now averaging 24 points per game since Ohio State returned from its 22-day COVID-19 layoff.
With 35, 13 and 24 points in the last three games, Branham has scored more in each contest since Ohio State resumed action than he did in any of the first 10 before that. Branham led the Buckeyes in scoring in two of those games, and was second only to Liddell on Sunday.
Branham is now the Buckeyes’ second-leading scorer on the season, as well, with an average of 10.4 points per game even though he averaged just 6.3 before Ohio State’s COVID pause. He shot under 40 percent against Indiana as the entire team struggled from the floor, but Branham is still shooting nearly 58 percent from the floor over the last three games.
“Even though some of those shots didn’t go in against Indiana, the game’s slowing down for him a little bit,” said Ohio State assistant coach Jake Diebler, who served as acting head coach on Sunday with Chris Holtmann out due to health and safety protocols. “He’s figuring out how to get more shots off, and he’s staying aggressive, playing with a little more physicality and force than what he started with at the beginning of the year. Our belief in him, and really all our young guys – that transition from high school to college is challenging – but he’s certainly starting to emerge as an offensive weapon.”
Branham’s shooting almost 63 percent from 2-point range, 50 percent from the 3-point line and is 18-for-20 from the free throw line in the last three games. Branham hit 13-of-14 free throws against Northwestern, which was more than he had made in the entire season entering the game, and knocked down nine in the second half alone.
“I’m really impressed,” Collins said. “Obviously that Nebraska game was kind of a coming-out party for him. You kind of knew he had the talent. You saw him play in high school, you knew what he was capable of, he’s got great size, he can shoot the ball, he’s quick. Terrific player. And then when you have the game that he had against Nebraska, sometimes that’s all it takes to really say, ‘I’m ready to do this now.’ Even the other night at Indiana, even though they didn’t play as well offensively, I thought he showed against their physicality, I thought he did some really nice things.”
The timing of Branham’s emergence couldn’t be better for the Buckeyes. Liddell’s two-game cold stretch before Sunday showed that the All-Big Ten forward is capable of having an off night amid an otherwise stellar season, and Justice Sueing remains unavailable for Ohio State after playing in only the first two games of the year.
Justin Ahrens says he realized Malaki Branham had a very high ceiling as soon as he stepped on campus.— Griffin Strom (@GriffinStrom3) January 8, 2022
"The game almost looks easy for him at times. ... He's definitely gonna be a star one day. You can see it in him right now."
Zed Key and Kyle Young have both shown the ability to put up double-digit points on any given night for the Buckeyes, but neither has done so with quite the level of consistency that Ohio State would ideally like out of a true second option. Branham is also more adept at creating his own shot, and his propensity to create plays for others seems to be expanding as well.
As the 6-foot-5 wing becomes more of a focal point for the Buckeyes, opponents will work harder to disrupt his rhythm. But the momentum the freshman has picked up over the last week-and-a-half could be difficult to slow down.
“It’s gonna be hard, guys are gonna game plan a little bit more for him now,” Diebler said. “But I think his consistency in practice is what’s setting him up to have success like tonight.”