Andy Gottesman / Multimedia Editor
If Wisconsin and Purdue drafted the blueprint for defeating the No. 1 Buckeyes, Kentucky didn’t follow it.
The Buckeyes were riding a nearly flawless season into the NCAA Tournament, aside from two losses against teams propelled to victory by peak performances from their top players.
OSU had the second-best start to a season in program history, with 24 straight wins, only behind the 1960–61 team’s 27, and it tied its second-best record for wins in a season, with 34. The team won both the regular-season and conference titles, earning the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Then, No. 4 seed Kentucky stopped OSU in its tracks.
When the Wildcats ended OSU’s national title run with a 62-60 victory on Friday, they used a collective effort on defense to prevent the Buckeyes from running away with the game, as OSU had in the second and third rounds.
“Nobody talks about (Kentucky’s) defense,” OSU coach Thad Matta said, following his team’s loss to Kentucky on Friday. “And, you know, obviously they’re very effective defensively.”
The Wildcats held OSU to a dismal 32.8 percent shooting, the team’s third-worst shooting performance of the season, next to its 32.2 percent shooting against Florida State on Nov. 30 and Northwestern on March 11. Despite having its worst shooting percentage of the season in those two contests, OSU still pulled off wins.
“Some of the shots we missed are shots we have been making all year,” OSU guard Jon Diebler said Friday. “Tonight they weren’t going in.”
Kentucky totaled 11 blocks against OSU, which is the most any team has achieved against the Buckeyes in a tournament game. Forward Josh Harrellson led Kentucky with 17 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks. Teammate DeAndre Liggins also swatted away three shots.
“I think Harrellson is probably the most underrated player in college basketball,” Matta said. “He’s a tremendous player and knows his role and does it well.”
The Wildcats’ defense held the Buckeyes to 38 fewer points than they totaled in their previous game against George Mason. It also allowed the Buckeyes to shoot just 37.5 percent from 3-point territory, down from 61.5 percent against the Patriots.
“I thought they did a good job of challenging shots, obviously, with their length,” Diebler said. “We are going against length all year and those are shots that we make, and tonight they weren’t going in.”
Coming off a 7-for-7 shooting performance from deep against George Mason, OSU’s David Lighty shot just 1-of-4 against Kentucky.
“They flew at shooters,” Lighty said Friday. “I mean, they crowded the paint. They did a good job of that.”
The Buckeyes also struggled to draw fouls against Kentucky in the second half. After drawing two fouls against each of five Wildcats in the first half, resulting in 12 points from free throws, OSU gained only four points from the charity stripe in the second half.
“The tide turned in the second half,” Matta said. “They were doing a pretty good job of switching their matchups and getting guys in and out of the game that were in foul trouble.”
Each of the Buckeyes’ regular-season losses, however, could be attributed to a standout performance from a single opposing player.
In OSU’s first loss, Feb. 12 at Wisconsin, the Buckeyes blew a 15-point lead with 13 minutes to play, mostly because of a clutch performance by Badgers guard Jordan Taylor.
In the game’s final 13 minutes, Taylor scored 21 points on 6-of-7 shooting, and assisted on four of his team’s other six field goals, thrusting the Badgers to a 71-67 win against the Buckeyes. Overall, he tallied a game-high 27 points on 8-for-13 shooting, including 5-of-8 from beyond the arc, and also made a game-high seven assists.
E’Twaun Moore led Purdue to a 76-63 home victory against the Buckeyes on Feb. 20, scoring a career-high 38 points on 13-for-18 shooting, including 7-of-10 from deep.
“Those were two, when you think about it, maybe two of the best performances in college basketball this year,” Matta said. “As my luck always has it, I get a first-row seat to watch it.”
But, as Kentucky proved on Friday with its 45.8 percent shooting, a team doesn’t have to have one of the “best performances in college basketball” to defeat the No. 1 team.