The difficulty that’s dogged Ohio State away from home took the night off and the Buckeyes breezed to a comfortable win that provided its best player and head coach with something to remember.
Minneapolis, MINN – Its 13-4 record, No. 16 national ranking and third-place position in the Big Ten standings as the season enters its stretch run has given Ohio State an aura that’s enviable, if not entirely authentic.
Sure, the Buckeyes feature some noteworthy aspects common to elite teams, but they still lack the one achievement every true championship contender features.
Perhaps that missing link – a road win against an exceptional opponent in a hostile atmosphere – will come Sunday at No. 6 Purdue.
There’s certainly more hope of that in the aftermath of a 75-64 win Thursday at Minnesota than existed after every previous conference game the Buckeyes played away from home.
E.J. Liddell’s 23 points, 15 rebounds and five assists led the way to an easier victory over the Gophers than OSU had managed in an overtime triumph at Nebraska in its conference road opener or certainly in subsequent desultory failures at both Indiana and Wisconsin.
The Buckeyes won this one the way dominant teams should, by separating emphatically early in the second half and never allowing Minnesota (11-6, 2-6) within range of hoping an upset might be possible.
Justin Ahrens, who continues to start despite being mired in a dreadful shooting slump, hit his only three-pointer in five tries to start the second half and Liddell added a conventional three-point play behind that.
Kyle Young scored six of his 14 points off the bench over the next three minutes to send the lead to double figures, and the Buckeyes continued to pound the Gophers inside with Liddell and Zed Key, either via post feeds or offensive put-backs.
Just 12th in the league in rebounding, Ohio State bludgeoned Minnesota on the glass, 48-22, with 20 of the Buckeyes’ rebounds coming on the offensive glass – their highest single-game total in six years.
Liddell’s 15 boards set a new career-high on a night he also surpassed the 1,000-point mark for his career on the free three one minute into the second half that completed his three-point play.
Young shot 5-of-7 to go with four rebounds and four assists, while Key pounded for 12 points and eight rebounds.
OSU’s dominance in the lane soothed the absence of starting point guard Jamari Wheeler, who sat out with a foot injury suffered in a non-conference win over Indiana-Purdue-Indianapolis nine days earlier.
He is expected to return at Purdue.
With Wheeler out, the Buckeyes benefitted from the return of freshman Meechie Johnson, who had missed three games with a facial fracture suffered in practice.
Johnson made only one of seven shots, but committed just a single turnover in 30 minutes.
The Buckeyes’ back-court scoring came from Malaki Branham, who collected all 11 of his points in the first half, and Cedric Russell, who provided all eight of his in the second half.
“E.J. Getting over the 1,000-point barrier is incredible,” said Chris Holtmann, who picked up his 100th victory as OSU’s head coach in a building where he had been 0-2 in five seasons. “I thought Kyle Young was phenomenal. Cedric Russell’s buckets were key. Malaki’s first half and Meechie, really not practicing for two and one-half weeks, he gave us some great minutes. I’m really proud of our guys.”
Holtmann is now 100-48 at OSU, joining Harold Olsen, Fred Taylor, Eldon Miller, Randy Ayers, Jim O’Brien and Thad Matta at 100 or above. Holtmann’s .675 winning percentage trails only Matta (.733) among that group.
Liddell is the 60th Ohio State player to hit the 1,000-point mark and the first since both Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr. hit the milestone in 2014.
“We were on him the whole game about his defense, his offense and running the floor,” Holtmann said, laughing. “He never fails…23 (points), 15 (rebounds) and 5 (assists). He’s just such a good player and we have such high expectations for him.
“He allows us to coach him at a high level. I’m really proud of him for breaking that 1,000 point barrier.”
Liddell is the first OSU player to hit 1,000 in three seasons or less since DeShaun Thomas in 2013.
“It means a lot,” Liddell said. “Coming here and being able to make a big impact, being, like, the 60th player in (school) history to do that, that’s a pretty cool experience.”
Bruce Hooley is the Digital Marketing Manager for PressPros and hosts the We Tackle Life podcast on iTunes and GooglePlay.