COLUMBUS, Ohio — E.J. Liddell has carried this Ohio State team through the first six games of the season.
On the biggest stage of the year and in front of the most-hyped crowd in nearly a decade, he finally got some help. Zed Key had a career night, Cedric Russell made the first impact of the season and the Buckeyes, despite a brutal night at the free-throw line, stunned No. 1 Duke, 71-66, at Value City Arena.
In some cases, they arrived at the arena more than 36 hours before the tip. They filled the upper deck to the final rows, mostly Ohio State fans in town to see the Buckeyes take on the nation's No. 1 team.
Down 66-59, Ohio State crept closer with a driving layup from Jamari Wheeler and a 3-pointer from Cedric Russell, giving him three for the night after having hit just one through the first six games.
And after Russell took a charge on Paolo Banchero at the other end, he drove and drew a foul with 1:46 to play and Duke clinging to a 66-64 lead. Ohio State was 6 for 16 from the line to this point, he split a pair to pull the Buckeyes within 66-65.
Liddell, who was 1 for 5 from the line until this point, drew a foul with 1:03 to play and hit both to give the Buckeyes a 67-66 lead. After two Duke misses, Liddell's fadeaway jumper pushed it to a 69-66 lead and Russell iced it at the line.
With 17:07 to play, Duke's Jeremy Roach scored on a drive to give the Blue Devils a 51-39 lead after having led by as many as 15 during the opening minutes of the half. From there, though, the offense would dry up significantly. The Blue Devils wouldn't connect on another field goal until 7:18 remained in the game when Trevor Keels hit a 3-pointer.
Despite that, Ohio State was only within 59-51 and trailed by 11 on the Keels 3-pointer. At one point, the teams combined for 12 straight empty possessions with Duke ahead 53-42, the Buckeyes unable to take advantage of the moment.
Their woes at the free-throw line wouldn't help. Ohio State was 4 for its first 14 from the line.
Starting with a Zed Key bucket to get them on the board, the Buckeyes scored on four straight possessions to take an early 8-4 lead that would grow to 13-7 when Liddell scored while being fouled with 13:07 left in the half. It could've been more, but Liddell missed the ensuing free throw - a sign of what was to come throughout the half.
With the lead at six points, the Buckeyes wouldn't get a shot on their next three possessions as they turned it over on each and allowed the Blue Devils to pull even at 13. Duke's run would continue there, and it reached a dramatic conclusion when Justin Ahrens dove into the Ohio State bench to save a loose ball and flipped it to Malak Branham near midcourt. He couldn't hold onto it, though, and after he was stripped by Paolo Banchero the Duke freshman scored at the rim to give his team a 25-17 lead and cap an 18-4 run that took 4:48.
With 2:11 to play in the half, Key hit the second of two free throws to give the Buckeyes points on consecutive possessions, but after the teams traded empty possessions Duke closed with a flourish. Wendell Moore Jr. scored on a straight-line drive, Jeremy Roach followed suit one possession later and Joey Baker added a transition 3-pointer after a Liddell turnover to put the Blue Devils ahead 43-29.
It looked to be the final points of the half, but a video review showed that Liddell was fouled with 0.1 seconds left and sent him to the line for two free throws. He missed the first but hit the second, capping a half that saw Ohio State go 3 for 10 (30.0%) from the line and commit nine turnovers leading to 13 points as Duke built a 43-30 lead.