Malaki Branham was so good for the Buckeyes on Monday night that Indiana forgot about E.J. Liddell with the game on the line in the waning seconds of a two-point contest.
With seven seconds left on the second-half clock and Ohio State trailing 63-61, Branham attracted the attention of four Hoosier defenders who had their eyes fixed on the freshman while Liddell flashed wide open on the low block. Branham found him for a dunk, Ohio State sent it to overtime and momentum had swung completely.
Not even three minutes of game time earlier, Indiana freshman Tamar Bates drilled a long 2-pointer to put the Hoosiers up four points, a lead they looked to expand after a timeout with 1:23 to play in the second half. But Liddell stole the ball and Ohio State proceeded to go on a 21-6 run through the end of regulation and then overtime to pull out a double-digit win at the Schottenstein Center.
“They were really confident when we got it to overtime,” Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann said after the game. “(The Hoosiers) were up four with the ball with 1:23 to go, but it’s still a long game, we just wanted to make them earn it in the halfcourt and then quickly get into a couple actions that we talked about in the timeout. We honestly didn’t have the legs to really push it off of misses. Normally I’d like to have some freedom and push it off of misses, we just didn’t have the speed or the legs to do that. It was a long game, but coming back, them with the ball, that didn’t look great at that point.”
Before Branham’s pass to Liddell for the game-tying dunk, he hit two free throws at the 56-second mark that made it a one-possession game. The Buckeyes got a stop thereafter to bring about the crucial sequence. Branham finished with 27 points to lead all scorers, hitting nine of his 13 shot attempts and going 8-for-8 at the free-throw line. On a night when Liddell shot just 6-for-15 from the field, Branham’s contributions were absolutely necessary for Ohio State, particularly late.
“I just thought our guys were phenomenal in the closing two or three minutes,” Holtmann said. “We had some guys struggling physically, to be honest with you. Their defense had something to do with it, but we did have some guys struggling physically. But 22 (Branham) wasn’t struggling.”
The final result trumps all in the end, but Ohio State’s late rally allowed it to avoid what could have been another heavily criticized late-game collapse as the Buckeyes struggles through a significant portion of the second half.
The Buckeyes had a 33-28 lead at halftime, then came out on fire to open the second period, hitting eight of their first 10 shots of the second half as it looked like Ohio State would take control and pull away from then on out. Ohio State got up by as many as 11 with 13:32 to play, but the Buckeyes left the door open for Indiana when they failed to hit another shot for nearly the next five minutes.
Things started going south on defense as well, as the Buckeyes allowed Indiana to hit eight free throws as part of a 14-2 run in which Indiana erased the double-digit deficit and took a four-point lead with 5:09 to go.
But the Buckeyes didn’t fold and played their best as the game entered its stretch run.
“It was really simple, I thought we executed exceptionally well in the last two minutes. Really, really well,” Holtmann said. “And I want to give our crowd a lot of love, I thought our crowd was really great the last maybe 10 minutes. I thought there was a stretch of the game where they got a little bit of momentum and I could feel our guys getting a little frustrated. We were missing shots. We tried to keep it really simple and keep it in our playmakers’ hands, and our execution on offense and on defense was good. It’s been good all year late, to be honest with you, with the exception of two games.”
The most notable exception was the eight-point lead Ohio State watched evaporate in the final four minutes against Rutgers in a demoralizing loss at Rutgers on Feb. 9. But neither that loss, nor the one Ohio State suffered in double-digit fashion to Iowa on Saturday – the Buckeyes’ first home loss of the season – has led to a string of losses for the scarlet and gray.
Ohio State has bounced back with a win every time it has been defeated this season, and a finish like the one the Buckeyes had on Monday makes it clear to see why. On offense, Ohio State closed the final two minutes of overtime on a 10-0 run. On defense, it held Indiana without points for the final 2:30 and forced the Hoosiers into seven straight missed shots as their window of opportunity for a road upset win closed.
The Buckeyes’ defensive effort in particular was one Liddell felt the need to highlight above all else after the final buzzer sounded.
“I feel like we got a lot of stops when we needed to get the stops,” Liddell said in his postgame interview. “That was an area we needed to improve on was getting stops and not allowing offensive rebounds, and I feel like we did that.”
As concerning as Ohio State’s late-game stumbles seemed for a chunk of time, its resilience in the face of those struggles will ultimately be the most important takeaway for the Buckeyes, who will need plenty more of that as they prepare to play five more regular season games in an 11-day stretch.
“I’m just happy we fought through adversity, honestly,” Liddell said. “They had their run at the right time, but I’m just happy we won this game. … We gotta string together games, two wins in a row.”