Overshadowed Liggins key figure in Kentucky's upset of No. 1 Ohio St.
NEWARK, N.J. -- DeAndre Liggins couldn't sleep the night before Kentucky's Sweet 16 date with No. 1 Ohio State. "Too fired up," he said. Once the game tipped off, he couldn't stop talking trash, couldn't stand still and, with the game on the line, couldn't miss a shot.
"I have unbelievable passion," he said afterward, still visibly amped-up. "I had a whole lot of emotion in me."
That emotion was on full display when, after the final horn sounded on the fourth-seeded Wildcats' stunning 62-60 upset of the tourney's overall No. 1, the usually reserved Liggins jumped on the scorer's table and saluted the crowd. They saluted back, and rightfully so.
For the second time in Kentucky's three tourney games, freshman Brandon Knight hit the game-winning shot for the Wildcats, draining a jumper with five seconds left. But to focus on Knight and his fellow celebrated Wildcats freshmen would be a slight to the three upperclassmen -- Liggins, forward Josh Harrellson and guard Darius Miller -- who played the biggest roles in putting the Wildcats in position to snare the upset.
"[Liggins] carried us the whole game," Miller said of his teammate, an 8.5-point scorer who finished with 15, including a go-ahead free throw and ensuing basket in the final 1:36. "We would have been blown out without him."
It would have been hard for either team to blow out the other in a tense, back-and-forth, defense-dominated contest. The lead changed hands 19 times, and neither team led by more than four points the entire second half.
The longer the game stayed close, the tighter the favored Buckeyes figured to play. It was a rare instance when a John Calipari-coached team was the underdog.
"We felt like we had nothing to lose," said Miller, who had four assists, two blocks and two steals. "We felt like most of the pressure was on them. It was a rare feeling."
It started out as a battle of strength under the basket. Harrellson, the burly 6-foot-10, 275-pound senior who has gone from afterthought to plot-changer since the SEC tournament, held his own in the first half with the far-more decorated Jared Sullinger and the teams went to intermission tied 30-30.
Harrellson, who would finish with 17 points and 10 rebounds, ran into foul trouble in the second half, and Sullinger eventually muscled his way to 21 points and 16 rebounds. But that was OK with the Wildcats, who went in with the goal of shutting down the other Buckeyes.
"We were going to make them beat us shooting twos," said Miller.
They had no choice. OSU's normally prolific perimeter players kept clanging up misses, and Liggins, who played 34 minutes, had a lot to do with that. He spent much of the night guarding William Buford, who shot a ghastly 2-for-16. He also helped on point guard Aaron Craft, who shot 0-for-5. Liggins even drew a charge from Sullinger late in the game. Ohio State, a near-50 percent shooting team on the season, finished just 32.8 percent from the field.
But Kentucky's shooters weren't exactly lighting it up either. Terrence Jones, limited by foul trouble, was 3-of-10. So was Knight. The one guy who kept getting to the basket, and either hitting shots or drawing fouls, was Liggins.
"Coach Cal says, if you've got the hot hand, we're going to feed you," said the senior. "I was making shots, so they kept calling plays for me."
During a timeout with two minutes remaining and Ohio State up 57-56, they called a play that ended with Liggins driving to the rack, drawing Sullinger's fourth foul, and sinking both free throws. After a Sullinger miss, a Harrellson rebound, and another timeout with 41.6 seconds remaining, the ball again went to Liggins, who drove to the rack for a floater to put his team up 60-57.
Then the one guy Kentucky most hoped to keep from beating them from three, tied them from three. Buckeyes sharpshooter Jon Diebler, as he's done so many times all year, drained a long trey from the top of the key to tie it at 60-60 with just 21.2 seconds remaining.
But then Knight had the ball, drove right and pulled up over Craft, arguably OSU's best perimeter defender. After his heroics against Princeton two rounds earlier, there was little doubt it would go down.
"He made a heck of a shot," said Ohio State coach Thad Matta. "Aaron is a tremendous defender. He had his hand in his face and he just rose up and made a great shot."
Ohio State became the third No. 1 seed to fall in this tournament. The Buckeyes carried the extra burden of overall No. 1 seed and consensus tourney favorite. "Everyone thought we were going to lose," said Liggins. To a man, it was clear the Wildcats relished their underdog status.
A year ago this week, Kentucky played the opposite role. A No. 1 seed with just two losses all year, the John Wall/DeMarcus Cousins-led Wildcats fell to West Virginia in the Elite Eight. Liggins played sparingly in that game. Miller didn't make a basket. Harrellson didn't play.
A year later, they'll get a chance to lead this year's team to the Final Four when they meet second-seeded North Carolina on Sunday in a regular-season rematch. (The Tar Heels won their Dec. 4 meeting in Chapel Hill, 75-73.) The Wildcats hardly seemed in position to do so a month ago, after a 77-76 overtime loss at Arkansas on Feb. 23 left them 7-6 in the SEC.
They haven't lost since.
"We're a good team," said Liggins. "We had a better team last year, but everyone on this team knows their role."
For guys like Liggins, that role often changes by the game. In the biggest game of the season, in the program's biggest win in years, he became the go-to guy.
"This was [against] the No. 1 team," he said. "I think I'm still dreaming."
Even he couldn't have dreamed up a performance as sweet as this.