E.J. Liddell “Really Hurting Inside” After Coming Up Short in What Was Likely His Final Game At Ohio State

By Griffin Strom on March 22, 2022 at 4:30 pm
E.J. Liddell

Eyes slightly swollen from postgame emotions, E.J. Liddell looked down and took a deep breath before issuing his first response in the interview session that followed Sunday’s loss to Villanova.

Ohio State’s star forward hadn’t yet had time to process the ramifications of the defeat, likely the last in his collegiate career, but was asked to do so in real time while still facing the immediate sting of a season-ending loss.

“I don't think reality has really kicked in yet that I wouldn't be able to – this certain group of guys, this is a lot of guys’ last games, older guys, seniors,” Liddell said after the 71-61 final result. “It's tough, man. I'm really hurting inside. I wish I could have done more to help get it done. This group of guys was really determined. We fought through a lot of adversity and injuries this year. I gave it my all this year. I wish I could have done a little bit more, though.”

Liddell began his third season with the Buckeyes, not a guarantee after testing the draft process last offseason, by telling members of the media that he aimed to be remembered with the same endearment as fan-favorite Buckeye legend Aaron Craft by the end of his Ohio State career. Liddell gave just about all he could toward that pursuit going into NCAA Tournament play, having been named first-team All-Big Ten, landing on the conference’s all-defensive team and also earning a third-team All-American nod by the AP.

But Liddell also knew that without an NCAA Tournament win or two on his résumé, his legacy might not feel complete. When Liddell was still just a reserve contributor as a freshman in 2019-20, the Big Dance was called off due to COVID-19. Liddell blossomed into a star as a sophomore, but his second-seeded Buckeyes were upset by No. 15 seed Oral Roberts in the first round of the 2021 tournament, which only added pressure on his postseason performance ahead of Friday’s first-round matchup with Loyola.

“To leave my name in the Ohio State fans’ minds and just my legacy here is going to mean a lot, honestly. Got to go win some games first. Have to win some games,” Liddell said Thursday. “I love winning games. No matter how much I score or even if I don't score and we win the game, I'm proud.”

But given the Buckeyes’ string of four losses in five games before the tournament began, there was plenty of reason for onlookers to believe Ohio State would stumble again in the first round. Liddell and company caught wind of that criticism, and it only seemed to fuel the Illinois native even more.

“We have to have that underdog mentality because I feel like a lot of people have been counting us out recently,” Liddell said the day before the game. “I feel like people forgot about how we play when we're fully healthy and we're all locked into everything. Come tomorrow y'all will see a different team.”

With a standout performance on both sides of the ball, as was standard practice for Liddell all season, the Buckeyes picked up a first-round NCAA Tournament win in a 54-41 victory over the 10th-seeded Ramblers. Liddell led the Buckeyes with 16 points, 10 boards and three blocks, and his defensive effort was especially notable given Ohio State played its best game of the season on that side of the ball.

“I feel like we're a physical team as well. And we came out here, we have some seniors, they have the older group as well. And I didn't want our seniors to go home yet,” Liddell said after the win. “So I did the best I could, got on the floor a couple times, just giving extra-effort plays to go out there and win the game.”

Ohio State looked like a different team indeed, but it needed to be even better in order to beat No. 2 seed Villanova and advance to the Sweet 16. Unfortunately for Liddell and the Buckeyes, they simply weren’t good enough to extend their season – and Liddell’s collegiate career – any further than the second round.

After trailing by 15 early in the second half, the Buckeyes managed to get within two points of the Wildcats within the final five minutes, but they came no closer thereafter.

“Credit to Villanova, they're a really good team. They've got a lot of older guys and they were composed,” Liddell said. “Gotta take care of the ball a lot more and credit to them. They played hard. I thought we went out there and played hard but we've got to take care of the ball a little bit more.”

Liddell picked up his third foul early in the second half, committed three turnovers during a five-point scoring period and also missed a free throw down the stretch. Liddell was hardly responsible for Ohio State’s comeback bid coming up short, but he still admitted he could have had a better performance in a loss that he’s sure to be thinking about for quite some time.

“My teammates were picking me up, they needed me, I started out the second half and felt like I let them down on the defensive side of the ball but over there reflecting on the bench I felt like I came back in and did better than what I did,” Liddell said. “I was trying to do my best to help (Malaki Branham) out right here. He was having a really good game and some shots weren't falling for me tonight.”

As perturbed as Liddell seemed by the result of the contest, he gave no indication that his plans to enter the NBA draft after the season would change at all. Liddell remained noncommittal in general when asked how that game could influence his future, but the prospect of returning for a fourth season never really seemed to be on the table at any point all season anyway.

“Right now I'm just reflecting on enjoying the moments I have with these guys, not even thinking about that, really haven't thought about that process yet,” Liddell said. “But this one stings. I'm not going to say I have thought about it, because I really haven't. This moment right here, I didn't want it to happen, ever.”

Chris Holtmann said on 97.1 The Fan Monday that Liddell will make his official announcement to enter the draft process on his own timeline, but that “every indication” has been given that he won’t be back for the Buckeyes. 

But neither that decision nor the disappointment of the loss to Villanova will derail the legacy of Liddell at Ohio State, which he’ll leave as one of the top talents the program has produced since the start of the century.

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