Sweet 16 Recap East Regional - (4) Kentucky 62, (1) Ohio State 60
How amazing is it that one year after reaching the Elite Eight with a vaunted group of freshmen, John Calipari has returned to the top tier of college basketball with such a distinctly different roster?
In 2010, John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins led a swaggering Kentucky team to the brink of the Final Four, but after a mass exodus on the part of a starting five bound for the pros, the Wildcats figured to take a step back in 2011. This was especially the case when Kentucky failed to gain the eligibility of big man Enes Kanter. Yet, Calipari – say what you want about his ethics – knows how to coach up his teams when the bright lights shine. Guiding a mixture of gritty upperclassmen and talented freshmen, Calipari steered the Wildcats past the Ohio State Buckeyes on Friday night at the Prudential Center in Newark.
UK freshman Brandon Knight nailed a ballsy jumper from the right elbow with 5.4 seconds left to push Big Blue into the regional final on Sunday afternoon. The display of coolness from the Cats’ late-game tournament playmaker (Knight beat Princeton, 59-57, on a layup with two seconds left in the first round of the tournament) capped an epic battle in which two elite teams stood in the ring and threw haymakers all night long. The shooting wasn’t anything to marvel at, especially for an Ohio State side that killed itself with a 33-percent clunker from the floor, but everything else about this fierce fistfight was worthy of not just the regional semifinals, but actually the national semifinals at the Final Four.
The lead changed hands 19 times before Knight’s game-winning dagger. The inside play between Kentucky’s senior forward Josh Harrellson (17 points, 10 rebounds) and Ohio State’s freshman forward Jared Sullinger (21 points, 16 rebounds) represented a main centerpiece of this game. Harrellson and Sullinger fought continuously under and over the boards, and although the Wildcat was called for three personals and the Buckeye for four, they combined for 73 of 80 possible minutes on the court between them in a high-level clash. Sullinger scored multiple times on putbacks to minimize OSU’s horrid perimeter shooting, but Harrellson basically played Sullinger even in this game, a huge boost for the Wildcats and a core reason why Kentucky toppled the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, thereby opening up the bracket for the West Region champion in the Final Four semis.
After all the lead changes that occurred in this game, it was fitting that the final minute witnessed the biggest swings of momentum. Ohio State senior sniper Jon Diebler hit a 3-pointer for the Buckeyes with 25 seconds on the clock to tie the game at 60 before Knight took the ball to the right of the free-throw circle to score the game-winning shot.
Ohio State finished its season with a 34-3 record, leaving the tournament after the Sweet 16 for the second straight year. Thad Motta’s squad, in addition to Sullinger’s 21 points, was led by Diebler with 16, and fifth-year senior David Lighty with 12 points and four assists. OSU was crushed, though, by the awful and selfish performance of guard William Buford. The junior hoisted 16 shots and made only two of them on a night when Sullinger and Diebler were getting a lot of work done. Buford’s baffling and pigheaded insistence on shooting the rock clearly hijacked the Buckeyes’ offense, ruining the Big Dance for the consensus favorite.
Kentucky - behind Harrellson’s 17 - was led by DeAndre Liggins, another one of the veterans who showed the young pups on the UK roster how to handle a difficult environment. Liggins popped in 15 points for Calipari, but he also grabbed six boards, swiped three steals, and swatted three OSU shots in a complete performance that was essential to the Cats’ conquest of Ohio State. Knight added nine points (including those two huge ones at the end of regulation), and freshman forward Terrence Jones contributed eight points and eight rebounds.
The Wildcats will meet the North Carolina Tar Heels for only the third time in NCAA tournament history on Sunday for a spot in this year’s Final Four. Kentucky lost both of the previous NCAA tournament meetings, losing in the Elite Eight both times, most recently in 1995. Previously this season, Kentucky lost to the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill in early December.
It’s safe to say that this game will own far more significance… for John Calipari in particular. If Kentucky can make the Final Four with this roster after missing out in 2010, “Coach Cal” will bolster his credentials in a manner that no critic can refute.
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