NEWARK — Kentucky’s freshman phenom Brandon Knight hasn’t been the Wildcats’ most consistent player this season. But he has shown a knack for making the baskets that matter.
Knight did it again Friday. With six seconds remaining and a defender’s hand in his face, the freshman point guard hit a 15-foot jump shot that delivered Kentucky’s 62-60 victory over top-seeded Ohio State to send the Wildcats into the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight.
It was Knight’s third field goal on an otherwise subpar shooting night. And it marked the second time in the last three games that Knight hit the game-winner to keep Kentucky’s hopes for an eighth NCAA Championship alive. In last weekend’s opening round, he hit a lay-up with 2 seconds left to avert an upset by Princeton.
“When it comes to crunch time, I focus in and make sure I am making the right decisions,” said Knight, who eclipsed John Wall’s Kentucky freshman scoring record, extending his season total to 618 points to Wall’s 616.
Kentucky (28-8) will face No. 2 North Carolina, an 81-63 victor over Marquette in Friday’s early game at the Prudential Center, on Sunday for a spot in the Final Four in Houston.
Ohio State (34-3), meantime, the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed, became the third top seed to fall, following Pittsburgh and Duke out the door before the Round of Eight.
“It hurts just because we felt we make a run at the championship,” said Ohio State’s Jon Diebler, whose 3-pointer with 23 seconds remaining tied the game at 60 each. “You know, by no means were we overlooking this team….You have to tip your hat to them.”
The Buckeyes shot just 32.8 percent from the field against Kentucky’s aggressive defense. The Wildcats senior forward Josh Harrellson did an impressive job against Ohio State’s hulking forward Jared Sullinger, who still managed a game-high 21 points and 16 rebounds.
Harrellson was invaluable on offense, as well, leading Kentucky with 17 points and 10 rebounds and drawing hosannas from Ohio State Coach Thad Matta, who called him “probably the most underrated player in college basketball.”
Kentucky, the region’s No. 4 seed, was the first team in the tournament to seriously challenge Ohio State. The Buckeyes had won their first two games by an average of 30.5 points per game, including a drubbing of George Mason, by riding the heroics of Sullinger, regarded as the best big man in the college game.
Friday’s late game was a match-up of teenage millionaires-in-waiting, featuring sure-fire NBA lottery picks Sullinger of Ohio State and Kentucky’s Knight and Terrence Jones—all of whom are expected to return to the Prudential Center June 23 for the NBA draft.
It was classic battle, pitting two former NCAA champions with passionate fans against each other. Unlike so many college teams this season, neither Ohio State nor Kentucky has an obvious deficiency. Both are loaded with talent at every position, and the game reflected that, featuring 19 lead changes, with neither team leading by more than three points for the last 18 minutes.
With seven national championships, Kentucky has rarely had occasion to claim the mantle of underdog. But that was its status entering the game, laden with young talent but lacking Ohio State’s seasoning.
The teams played to a 30-30 tie at the half, with Sullinger supplying 10 of Ohio State’s points and Harrellson’s 12 leading the way for Kentucky.
Neither of Kentucky’s most highly touted freshmen, Knight and Jones, did much in the first half, hitting just two field goals between them on nine attempts.
Kentucky coach John Calipari called a time-out after David Lighty’s 3-pointer put Ohio State up, 36-32, early in the second half. And he used the break, in part, to scream at Jones, his 6-8 freshman forward: ”Play in the post! Be a man!” Jones, at that point, had three points on one-of-five shooting from the field.
Both teams struggled to finish baskets.
The lead rocked back and forth, with Sullinger finishing an alley-oop to put Ohio State ahead, Deandre Liggins hitting a 3-pointer to retake the lead for Kentucky and Sullinger reclaiming it for the Buckeyes with a dunk that made it 47-46.
While Knight’s shooting woes continued, Harrellson converted a 3-point play to put Kentucky up, 53-51.
The score was knotted at 53 when Knight finally hit his second basket—this one, a 3-pointer--with just over 5 minutes to play.
A lay-up by Sullinger pulled Ohio State within one. And Lighty drove to the basket for a layup that put the Buckeyes out front, 57-56, with just over 2:00 left.
A foul by Sullinger sent Liggins to the line; he hit both.
Sullinger, with a chance to retake the lead in the waning seconds of a measured Ohio State possession, hit the side of the backboard instead.
That put the ball in Kentucky’s hands. Coming out of the timeout that followed, Liggins slashed to the basket for a lay-up.
It was Matta’s turn to call a time out, 34.8 seconds remaining, his Buckeyes trailing by three. After Diegler’s 3-pointer tied it with 21.2 left, Calipari chose to let his Wildcats play on rather than draw up a play and give Ohio State a chance to re-set its defense.
And this time, Knight didn’t miss.