Sunday December 20th, 2015

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Four years later, the shot still haunts Thad Matta. In the 2011 NCAA tournament, Matta’s Buckeyes—led by Jared Sullinger, William Buford and Jon Diebler (and featuring Aaron Craft and Jordan Sibert)—were the No. 1 overall seed when they came across No. 4 seed Kentucky in the Sweet 16. With the shot clock off and the game tied at 60, Kentucky’s Brandon Knight drove to the elbow, launched a contested jumper … and swished it. Kentucky held on for five more seconds and pulled off the upset of the tournament.

Ohio State hasn’t played Kentucky since that day, and Matta hasn’t re-watched the game, but he remembers the play nearly perfectly. As he prepared for the Wildcats this week, it looped in his mind repeatedly. It is not a pleasant memory, but after Ohio State sealed the upset of the college basketball season, beating No. 4 Kentucky 74–67 at Barclays on Saturday night, he recalled it with the slightest smirk. After all, he had just witnessed something almost as unlikely.

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For much of the second half, Matta watched as Kentucky—led by a 33-point performance from freshman guard Jamal Murray—whittled away at Ohio State’s lead. The Buckeyes were up 16 with 11:08 to play … then nine with nine minutes remaining … then only three with four minutes left. It was then, with the score at 63–60, that the Buckeyes earned their win on two unbelievable plays.

First, Kentucky sophomore guard and team leader Tyler Ulis lazily wrapped up Kam Williams from behind on a breakaway layup and was called for an intentional foul because he hadn’t made a play on the ball. Williams hit both free throws. Since Ohio State retained possession, Kentucky coach John Calipari called for his players to target Daniel Giddens, a freshman center who hits 28.6% of his free throws. Alex Poythress hacked Giddens, who responded by swishing both free throws. The Buckeyes’ lead ballooned to seven, and Kentucky was never able to recover.

“You foul a kid on purpose because he’s shooting 28% and he swishes both,” Calipari told reporters after the game. “That’s when you look down [the bench] and say, ‘This is about done, boys.’”

To Matta, those free throws were a reminder that even when you repeatedly preach to make your own breaks, even when you plan meticulously, even when you have the top team in the country, you can’t control everything.

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“We were the best team in college basketball [in 2011],” Matta told Saturday night as he boarded the Buckeyes’ bus. “And then Knight hit that freak shot to win it, and it was over. Sometimes, you don’t earn breaks and sometimes you just get them.”

Ohio State did a little bit of both against Kentucky. They spent the first 12 minutes of the game building a 14-point lead and then locked down defensively, only allowing Kentucky seven points during a nearly seven-minute scoring drought toward the end of the first half. When freshman guard JaQuan Lyle sank a buzzer-beating deep three at the end of the first half, it seemed like everything was going right for the Buckeyes. The large first-half lead helped them stave off Kentucky’s second-half surge.

That surge was led almost single-handedly by Murray, who scored 33 of Kentucky’s 67 points, including 27 of the team’s 42 second-half points. As highly touted freshman center Skal Labissiere has been slow to emerge this year, Murray has become Kentucky’s No. 1 offensive option, but not always its best. Although Murray takes 26% of the team’s shots when he’s on the floor, his 105.1 offensive rating is barely above average. Against Ohio State, he was benched twice in the first half before his breakout second half. He finished the game with a blistering 131 O-Rating.

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​Calipari blamed the loss partially on his playcalling but mostly on his freshmen needing to mature. Although last year’s 38–1 Wildcats featured three one-and-done NBA lottery picks, it was bolstered by sophomores and juniors in key roles. “I know this: We’re not as good as we were a year ago,” Calipari said. “That’s pretty obvious.”

Murray’s breakout performance thus was less a cause for celebration than concern, as the Wildcats have work to do in making their three star freshman—Murray, Labissiere and Isaiah Briscoe—into consistent scoring threats. “I wish we were farther along than we are,” Calipari said.

Where the Wildcats seemed shallow (only three players scored in double figures), the Buckeyes appeared deep. Four players scored double-digit points and eight ended the game with at least two buckets next to their names on the box score. Freshman forward Keita Bates-Diop led the way with 14 and sophomore center Trevor Thompson added 10 points, five rebounds and five blocks after averaging 5.4, 4.0 and 1.0 on the season.

“We needed this win,” Bates-Diop said. “People underestimated us, and we came out and showed them.”

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The Buckeyes indeed needed the win as what could be the first move in rebuilding an abysmal NCAA tournament resume. The Buckeyes came into the game 5–5 with their best win coming over No. 171 team Northern Illinois earlier in the week. They’d already lost three games at home and were outside the top-50 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They were ahead of only Rutgers in the Big Ten standings.

“I think that, obviously, it’s a big, big win for us,” Matta said.

At the end of the year, it’s likely this game will have meant more to Ohio State as a win than it did to Kentucky as a loss. But maybe its most lasting meaning will be for Matta. Now, when that improbable Knight shot flashes in his mind, he can recall the night when his 28.6% free-throw shooter swished two and sealed a win over the Wildcats. Sometimes you make your own breaks, and sometimes you just get them.

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