No. 17 Ohio State hardened by buzzer-beater; Niagara up next

·3 min read

Ohio State learned a lot about itself in a season-opening win against Akron, maybe more than the No. 17 Buckeyes had anticipated.

The Buckeyes have little time to absorb the totality of those lessons with another game Friday, this time with Niagara in Columbus, Ohio.

The Buckeyes (1-0) squandered a 14-point first-half lead Tuesday and needed a layup by Zed Key in the last second to defeat the underdog Zips, 67-66.

What the Buckeyes learned is that the offense struggles without forward E.J. Liddell in the game. They also learned freshman guard Malaki Branham is as cool under pressure as his billing would portend.

Liddell had a game-high 25 points, one off the junior forward's career high, in 30 minutes of court time. He was a plus-4, second on the team to Branham's plus-10. Liddell picked up his third foul early in the second half and at one stretch was on the bench for more than five minutes as Akron mounted a comeback.

"I thought E.J. was a warrior all night," Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said.

Branham, the 2021 Ohio Mr. Basketball as a senior at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary (the same high school LeBron James attended), scored to give the Buckeyes a 63-62 lead against his hometown school, assisted on the basket by Key to make it 65-62, then after Akron took a 66-65 lead, fed Key for the winning bucket.

"Malaki made that great pass and it led to me making the game-winning layup," Key said. "Without that pass, I don't know what would happen. That was a big moment from Malaki. I applaud him. He's really good."

Turning the page doesn't mean there's time to exhale for the Buckeyes.

Niagara (0-1) played a close game in its opener, losing 63-60 at Xavier in Cincinnati.

The Purple Eagles' Marcus Hammond topped all scorers with 25 points and had six rebounds. He led the team in scoring (12.7) and was second in rebounding (5.8) last season.

Purple Eagles coach Greg Paulus is familiar with basketball in the Buckeye State after being on the Ohio State staff under Thad Matta from 2011-17.

Paulus began as the video coordinator from 2011-13 before being promoted to assistant coach. While at Ohio State, Paulus was part of four NCAA Tournament teams, a Big Ten championship and a Final Four team in 2012.

He joined the Purple Eagles as an assistant coach in May 2019 and was elevated to head coach six months later after Patrick Beilein unexpectedly resigned for personal reasons less than a month before the season. Paulus last month had his contract extended through the 2024-25 season.

"I think the preseason has been really good for us, finally being able to have an offseason we haven't really had a chance to have that those last two years that coach Paulus has been here," Niagara guard Justin Roberts said in noting the COVID-19 protocols that limited practices last season. "Being able to have that offseason has really helped us prepare for the season, so we have high hopes for sure."

-- Field Level Media