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MADISON, Wis. – There was a point during Thursday night’s game at Wisconsin where E.J. Liddell had no choice but to ask for a breather.
That’s the effort level the Ohio State third-year forward said he brought to the court as the No. 16 Buckeyes faced the No. 13 Badgers at the Kohl Center. Against a prideful Wisconsin team seemingly hell-bent on making amends for a collective dud in a matchup between the teams a month ago at Value City Arena, it wasn’t nearly enough. And while Liddell didn’t absolve himself from blame, the team captain and leading scorer left a 78-68 loss asking for more.
More from himself and, most importantly, more across the board from his fellow Buckeyes.
“Any loss hurts, but I feel like it would’ve been different if we would’ve gave full effort, everybody on the team 1-14, everybody on the bench,” Liddell, standing in the hallway leading to the visitors’ locker room, told The Dispatch. “I feel like if we didn’t come out the first half like we did, it would’ve been a different result. I just don’t like when we’re not playing up to effort, because we have a lot more to give.”
The assessment sounded strikingly familiar to the postmortem delivered by the Buckeyes after their previous road game, a decisive, 67-51 loss at Indiana one week prior. At Assembly Hall, Ohio State led for 11:45 and was ahead by as many as eight points before limping to a 21-point second half as the Hoosiers ran away with it.
This time, against a top-15 team, Ohio State gave up a 3-pointer on the game’s opening possession and never led. Wisconsin built a 13-point halftime lead, pushed it to 17 during the second half and had enough to fend off a late Liddell-fueled push. After the Indiana game, second-year players Meechie Johnson Jr. and Zed Key both expressed some frustration over what they called a lack of connectivity from the Buckeyes in a hostile road environment.
Liddell used that same word unprompted after this loss.
“I feel like we’re not connected sometimes,” he said. “I feel like we have a really connected group off the court and every single day we come into the gym, but I feel like away games, we have to be better connected, have better prep days and just know it’s us against the world.”
The difference this time was that the issues primarily manifested themselves during the first half. Already trailing 13-7, Ohio State turned the ball over on three straight possessions as Wisconsin slowly increased its lead. Although the Buckeyes would finish with only 11 turnovers, five of them came during the first 10 minutes of the game as they quickly fell behind by double digits.
At the break, a Wisconsin team that entered the night shooting 29.3% from 3-point range was 7-for-13 (53.8%) while the Buckeyes had missed all eight of their shots from deep. Ohio State was 12 for 20 from inside the arc and had an 18-14 edge in points in the paint but trailed by 13 points. Wisconsin out-rebounded Ohio State 19-12 and had an 8-4 advantage in second-chance points.
“I think the first 20 minutes, we didn’t (play hard enough),” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. “I think the second 20 minutes, we did. To win on the road against a good team, that’s what it demands. I think we’ve been able to quote-unquote get away with it a little bit, but it’s an area we definitely have to get better so I think collectively, he’s right. It’s on all of us to raise our level. I did think in the second half it was much, much better.”
The second half was better, even if the perimeter shooting wasn’t. And better wasn’t good enough, as the Buckeyes never got closer than two possessions during the final 20 minutes.
Liddell has been the team’s engine all season. He scored 14 of his team-high 18 points after halftime and played a team-high 31:08 despite fouling out with 3:18 to play. Ohio State trailed by 15 at that point but would put together an 11-2 run in the next 2:23 to make things interesting.
“I felt like I played my hardest,” Liddell said. “I had to tell coach I needed a break one time. I feel like we need more guys doing that, just emptying their tanks and playing their hardest. This is a learning experience, and this isn’t our last game, so keep working.”
He is also one of four captains, one of whom (Justice Sueing) hasn’t played since the second game of the season due to injury. Fifth-year graduate guard Jamari Wheeler has elevated to a captain’s role, and he said no common thread has seemed off in the team’s preparation for road games.
“We’ve got to win 50-50 balls and make winning plays,” Wheeler said. “Like E.J. said, the effort wasn’t there. They were getting all loose balls, second chances off the glass, loose balls. Just effort.”
Ohio State doesn’t have to return to the road for a while. The Buckeyes host Penn State on Sunday, IUPUI on Tuesday and Nebraska on Saturday before playing at Minnesota on Jan. 27. Those teams are ranked Nos. 66, 355 and 156, respectively, according to KenPom.com.
Liddell is looking for more in the coming weeks. Holtmann said that’s a sign of ownership from the player who already leads the team in scoring (19.9 points per game), rebounds (7.1), blocks (3.1) and minutes (30.8) per game.
“It’s his team,” Holtmann said. “It’s those older guys’ team. Listen, he’ll take ownership in that. He’s not looking at it and (just) saying, ‘They have to play harder.’ He’s saying, ‘We collectively have to play harder,’ and he’s right. What have we said for(ever?) He’s a special player when he’s playing with a high motor.
“It’s not just him. He has another level he can get to. I think E.J.’s saying that, he’s taking ownership but he’s also putting it on other guys and that’s what good leaders do. We’ll see if we respond.”
Meechie Johnson Jr. to be sidelined for a while
Ohio State’s backcourt took a hit this week. Second-year guard Meechie Johnson Jr., a key member of the rotation, suffered a facial injury during Tuesday’s practice and did not travel with the team to Wisconsin.
Holtmann said he will miss some time with the injury.
“I love Meechie and I feel really bad for him,” said Holtmann, who joined the team Thursday in Madison after clearing COVID-19 protocols. “Obviously I was not there the last two days, but I was watching from home and saw it happen. It was just a rebounding drill. Feel bad for him. He’ll be back, but it was a pretty good hit that he took.
“He’s an important part of what we do, just like Justice being out and Seth (Towns) being out, but we love the kid and we hope he gets back but it’s going to be a little bit. How long, I don’t know, but it’s going to be a little bit.”
Without Johnson, Jimmy Sotos played for 9:27 and finished with two points and a turnover after being an unused substitute during the last two games. In 15:01, Cedric Russell had two points, a rebound, an assist and a turnover.
“We definitely missed Meech tonight, but we’ve got a deep enough bench that next-man-up mentality,” Wheeler said. “That’s how we’ve been all season. We’ve got to step up to that role.”
Justin Ahrens, rest of Buckeyes struggle from deep
It’s been a tough go for senior captain Justin Ahrens since returning from the virus-induced pause. After going 25 for 58 (43.1%) from 3 during the first 10 games, Ahrens has now made four in his last four games.
As Ohio State has gone 2-2 against Nebraska, Indiana, Northwestern and Wisconsin, Ahrens has gone 4 for 20 (20.0%) from deep and is now 29-for-78 (37.2%) for the season.
What’s been different for Ahrens lately?
“League play, for one, as much as anything,” Holtmann said. “We’ve maybe got to find some ways to free him up. I do still think, he was getting his legs back these first couple games. I don’t worry about him, though. He’ll bounce back. He’ll find openings and find opportunities.”
He was 1 for 4 against the Badgers and missed his two first-half attempts.
“You’ve got to have a short memory,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said when asked how shooters can snap out of rough stretches in Big Ten play. “You can’t worry about what didn’t happen. I’m sure he works hard at it. I don’t know him personally, but becoming that good a shooter, it’s not by accident. His brother was a good player too at Michigan State.
“I’m sure he’ll find a way to keep working at it, but the one thing is good shooters have short memories. They put the past behind them and just worry about doing their preparation and their work every day and moving onto next.”
He wasn’t alone in his struggles Thursday: Ohio State’s 3-for-19 night (15.8%) was its worst for the season, breaking its previous low of 26.3% (5-for-19) in a loss to Florida on Nov. 24. Liddell was 2 for 3, but Wheeler missed all five of his attempts, Kyle Young missed his three attempts and Malaki Branham (who had 10 points) was empty on two tries.
“We’re such a good shooting team,” Holtmann said. “We had some good looks that we missed, but they really hug shooters and they’re not going to give your best shooters clean looks. We just couldn’t take advantage of that enough.”
“Just couldn’t knock it down,” Wheeler said. “They were doubling E.J., as we knew they would coming into this game. He was making the right pass. We just couldn’t make shots. Especially me. I couldn’t hit a 3. Onto the next one.”
*Ohio State was seeking its first three-game winning streak against Wisconsin since it won five straight from Feb. 25, 1998-Feb. 2, 2000.
*Wisconsin’s Tyler Wahl, who had 3 points in the first meeting between these teams, finished with 20. He also went 2 for 4 from 3-point range after entering the night 0-for-17 from deep.
*The Buckeyes outscored the Badgers 46-32 in the paint.
*Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis finished with a season-low 14 points on 4-of-18 shooting.
“Since we got back from break, there have been too many stretches where we’ve got to play more consistently with force. We’ve been saying that part of that’s a by-product of COVID with these guys, but I think that’s no longer the case. We’ve got to embrace that.” – Holtmann
“We tried to make his catches tough. Take him out of his comfort zone. He does so many things. You see him knock down some 3s there in the second half, so he’s a really good player. It’s hard to straight-up double team him. I thought Tyler (Wahl) just did a good job of not giving him anything easy, for the most part. E.J.’s a really good player.” – Gard
“Be connected. We know what it takes. Being in the Big Ten, you know what it takes to be on the road. We’ve just got to bring it. We can’t come out slow. We’ve got to throw the first punch, especially on the road. That’s a big thing. They came out more physical and they set the tone in the game.” – Wheeler
This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Buckeyes captain E.J. Liddell calls out effort after loss at Wisconsin