Ohio State junior forward E.J. Liddell stepped to the free-throw line on a tough stretch from the charity stripe, dropping only one of his last five free throws.
He also sat at 25 points for the second time in as many games to begin the 2021 season, just one away from tying his career high.
The Belleville, Illinois, native found his stroke and drained both to set a new career-high mark, finishing with 29 points and putting a bow on his spectacular night and showing, yet again, that he is going to be the offensive stalwart for the Buckeyes every game.
“He’s been incredible,” graduate forward Kyle Young said. “We need him to continue to play like that for us, and we just enjoy having him out there with us.”
The Buckeyes found themselves in a pound-for-pound matchup from the beginning, as Niagara senior guard Marcus Hammond shot the lights out, starting 4-for-6 from the floor for 11 points at the under-16 minute timeout.
Hammond’s hot start was reminiscent of the Round of 64 in the 2021 NCAA Tournament when Oral Roberts then-sophomore guard Max Abmas had 9 points in the first six and a half minutes.
In that game, the Buckeyes were paced by then-senior guard Duane Washington Jr.’s 11 points in the same amount of time.
Liddell was similar to Washington on Friday, scoring six of the first eight points for Ohio State at the under-16 timeout, but that was only the beginning for him.
He responded by outscoring the Purple Eagles 9-5 in the next 3:07.
He drew a foul on a 3-point attempt — a play that, ironically, Liddell committed against Akron which almost cost the Buckeyes the game — before drilling all three free throws.
The next defensive possession Ohio State graduate guard Jamari Wheeler poked away Hammond’s dribble, as senior forward Justin Ahrens scooped up the loose ball, dribbling up the court before throwing a lob to Liddell who then hammered it home.
“He’s been huge for us, offensively and defensively,” Young said. “You see what he can do on the defensive end as well. You know, he saved me tonight with somebody driving by me and he blocked it.”
Following Ohio State’s exhibition against Indianapolis Nov. 1, head coach Chris Holtmann said he felt Liddell wasn’t playing with maximum effort. After the season opener against Akron, Holtmann said that was the “motor” he was looking for from the forward.
Holtmann said NBA scouts told him to not change the basis of Liddell’s game — playing in the post, crashing the boards and playing stout defense — to strictly a perimeter-shooting player.
However, Liddell displayed a level of athleticism Friday that showed why he was named to the Karl Malone Award and National Association of Basketball Coaches Player of the Year Preseason watch lists, looking like a transcendent talent compared to everyone else on the floor.
He was everywhere on the court, draining 3s, throwing down dunks and facilitating better than ever before, but he can’t be a one-man wrecking crew forever.
With Big Ten defenses keying in on him, he will need more help than sophomore forward Zed Key and redshirt senior forward Justice Sueing scoring 11 and 10 points, respectively.
“He’s had a great start offensively here, and I think he’s taken some strides defensively, but he’s got to continue to grow in that area,” Holtmann said. “I think he’s just playing to win and part of that is he’s been aggressive offensively, and I love seeing that.”