Ohio freshman Malaki Branham makes winning assist, big bucket late in impressive college debut

The question of who would have the ball in their hands to aid Ohio State’s late-game offense without Duane Washington this year went unanswered going into Tuesday’s season opener.

Chris Holtmann said in the preseason he expected Judge Sueing to be the Buckeyes’ main playmaker in games. But hampered by a lingering lower leg injury against Akron, the fifth-year forward was not himself on Tuesday.

The ball should surely find its way to EJ Liddell in a final shot scenario, but with 3.2 seconds left in an Akron-led 66-65 game at the Schottenstein Center, the Buckeyes star forward was already fouled. .

Instead, with the game in play, the Buckeyes devised a game to hand the ball over to a player who walked into the night without a single minute of college basketball experience.

True first-year goaltender Malaki Branham started almost under the basket on the off-bounds Ohio State side before using a Zed Key screen to open at the top of the ground. Justin Ahrens gave him the ball, and Branham was quick and decisive with it. The Columbus native passed Key between two Akron defenders in the paint, and the second-year forward dropped the ball with just a split second remaining.

“I think if we had lost I probably would have questioned myself in a few ways,” Holtmann said after the game. “I’m glad Malaki made this decision.”

It wasn’t the only great game Branham came up with in his very first college basketball game.

With 90 seconds left in a game in which Ohio State trailed Akron 62-61, Branham found himself with the ball on the wing. Branham surveyed the pitch, took two powerful dribbles to his right to clear a Liddell screen, then backed his man back to the block. Branham got up with a gentle rider from the glass who found the back of the net.

Ohio State took the lead with 1:28 to go.

“I was looking for lineups and attacks because normally that would be a guy like Justice,” Holtmann said. “I think I’ll be looking for some in this situation this year. We put the ball in the hands of a freshman, and I probably didn’t expect to get it as late as we did. But I thought he made some good decisions.

Branham didn’t have a huge offensive explosion to announce himself to Buckeye fans and the college basketball world in general. The freshman finished with just seven points in the victory. However, the balance he displayed at the end of a close game could have been even more impressive than a big goal night in a blowout.

Every play Branham performed last Tuesday seemed like a big play. The Buckeyes trailed the Zips by three points with 5:31 left, but Branham didn’t hesitate on a contested 3-point catch-and-shoot attempt from the corner when Jamari Wheeler threw the ball at him. The shot did not hit any iron and tied the game at 55.

“We had glimpses of it with Malaki. We did it, ”said Holtmann. “And we’ve talked as the coaching staff that the ball might have to be in their hands a bit late, especially as Justice gets healthier. But I think Meechie (Johnson) is going to have some of those moments as well, obviously EJ. As much as anything in these situations, you’re looking for guys who can happen in their place against physical pressure, and he can very well happen in his place.

Branham finished with six rebounds, three assists, one block, one steal and one turnover to go along with his contributions to the goal in 24 minutes in his debut. In fact, Branham finished with the highest over / under of any Buckeye on Tuesday, his +10 rating being seven points better than any other player on the team.

You could forgive a freshman for getting nervous before and during the first college game of his career, and especially one that was as close as Tuesday’s end to end. But Holtmann said Branham’s demeanor was cold as a stone.

“He doesn’t sound really nervous. Never, ”said Holtmann. “It looks a bit the same. My biggest problem with Malaki right now is that he can take over too much and he can hang his head when he makes mistakes. But I didn’t see a lot of nerves from him.

As much credit as Branham deserves for making the winning play against Akron, Key also deserves his fair share for making the layup. Holtmann made sure to give the big second-year man his due after the game.

Yet Holtmann also won’t let Key forget who made the play.

“He’s a great kid and I’m happy for him. I really am, ”said Holtmann. “I’m happy to see a second year student having a time like this.

“I hope he pointed to a very good passer.”

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