The Buckeyes experienced the highs and lows of a season all in the final 10 seconds during their opener Tuesday.
Sophomore forward Zed Key made sure No. 17 Ohio State started the season on the right foot, laying in the game-winning score to hold off Akron as the clock struck zero. The Buckeyes (1-0) were outscored in the second half against the Zips, and despite the nail-biting finish, the challenge was something Ohio State desired.
“We want to face adversity right now so we can learn from these things and just keep moving forward,” junior forward E.J. Liddell said. “I’m happy it came earlier in the season. A win is a win and we’re going to learn from this.”
Ohio State will host Niagara (0-1) of the Metro Atlantic Conference Friday in the first all-time meeting between the two programs. Head coach Greg Paulus, like Zips skipper John Groce, is another former Buckeyes assistant coach returning to Columbus.
The Purple Eagles fell just short against Xavier Tuesday, erasing a 13-point deficit with less than 10 minutes remaining only to lose 63-60.
“Greg does a phenomenal job at Niagara. They’re going to be prepared and ready for us,” head coach Chris Holtmann said. “We need to be better.”
Senior guard Marcus Hammond led all scorers with 25 points on 9-of-17 shooting against Xavier, dropping four 3-pointers and grabbing six rebounds. He earned All-MAAC First Team honors in 2019-20.
Niagara collectively shot 39.6 percent from the field with a near-identical figure from beyond the arc. The Purple Eagles boast five players taller than 6-foot-6, including 6-foot-8 graduate forward Jordan Cintron, who scored eight points with six rebounds Tuesday.
“Greg does a great job there. Got a lot of respect for how his kids play,” Holtmann said. “They performed exceptionally well at Xavier. It’s obviously going to be another challenge for us and one that we need to be ready to go for.”
The Buckeyes saw mixed results despite squeaking out their first victory. Particularly, Ohio State’s backcourt underwhelmed, seeing starting guards freshman Meechie Johnson Jr. and graduate Jamari Wheeler score just six points in over 52 minutes combined.
Liddell led Ohio State with 25 points, 11 rebounds and three assists, showing how critical he is to the Ohio State offense. Holtmann said the Buckeyes will look for contributors to step up and help balance a team he said is still a work in-progress.
“We’re searching a little bit for some other guys, just to be real honest,” Holtmann said. “I thought we had some guys show glimpses of really good plays.”
Injuries have also hindered the Buckeyes this early into the season. Redshirt senior forward Justice Sueing is dealing with an ongoing groin issue while Holtmann said the team would assess how graduate forward Kyle Young practiced leading into Friday to determine his availability.
Nonetheless, Ohio State saw early glimpses of the impact its youth can have. Key shot over 63 percent behind his 14-point performance, matching his career best.
Perhaps freshman guard Malaki Branham flashed most of any Buckeye newcomer. He scored seven points and had six rebounds while tying for the most assists with three, including the feed to Key on the final score against Akron.
“He didn’t look scared; he looked like he belonged out there,” Key said. “He’s a real good player. I’ve been telling people that he’s going to shock a lot of people this year.”
Ohio State and Niagara will tip off at 7 p.m. at Value City Arena. The game will broadcast on BTN+.