John Clay: This four seed is a force

Stunning win proves selection committee underrated the Cats

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 26, 2011 

NEWARK, N.J. — Turned out Gene Smith, the athletics director at The Ohio State University, in his appointed duties as chairman of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, did his home school no favors.

Kentucky, a No. 4 seed?

I think not.

Better yet, UK thought not.

You could tell it on Selection Sunday when, just after winning the SEC Tournament by pounding Florida, the Cats were stuck with the No. 4 seed in the powerhouse East Regional. You could feel it again here Thursday when assorted UK players bristled at questions regarding their underdog status against the big, bad Buckeyes.

"They're a great team," DeAndre Liggins said. "We're a great team."

Friday night, they proved it. In a fabulous 40 minutes at the Prudential Center, John Calipari's club dug down as deep as it could go and pulled out an amazing 62-60 victory over the No. 1 seed in all the tournament to advance to the East Regional finals on Sunday.

Brandon Knight, who had struggled with his shot all night, just as he did against Princeton in the first round, hit the winning shot, just as he did against Princeton.

Knight's pull-up jumper from the right wing with five seconds left put the Cats up by two points. And when William Buford's contested jumper came up short at the end, the Kentucky bench erupted into a Sweet 16 celebration.

Knight hit the winning shot — a few minutes after John Calipari had screamed at his freshman, "You're 0-for-12. Pass!!!" — but the Cats won this game with their down-and-dirty defense.

An amazing 49.9 percent shooting team on the season, Ohio State made just 32.8 percent of its shots. After hitting 28 of 50 three-pointers in their first two NCAA Tournament games, including 16 threes against George Mason on Sunday, the Buckeyes were just 6-for-16 from beyond the arc.

"It was one of those games where we had a hard time putting the ball in the basket," said Thad Matta, the disappointed OSU coach. "Kentucky obviously did a tremendous job challenging our shots."

"Our freshmen were OK," Calipari said, "but our veterans won this game."

There was Josh Harrellson, continuing his string of post-season gems, scoring 17 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. There was DeAndre Liggins, scoring 15 points and helping, as always, on the defensive front.

And Darius Miller delivered on one of the biggest plays of the night. Ohio State was down 58-57 inside the final minute when the Buckeyes' bull, Jared Sullinger, got the ball on the right block.

Harrellson was behind Sullinger, but it was Miller who came with the quick double-team. Bothered and agitated, Sullinger's shot hit the side of the backboard.

It no doubt helped the Cats' cause that after Ohio State was so impressive all season and last weekend, most of the talk was how the Buckeyes would breeze into Houston.

"Not many people expected us to win," said Knight, "because we're a freshmen team."

But the Cats were the more athletic team, the tougher team, the hungrier team. Consider that Kentucky blocked 11 shots. Ohio State blocked one.

When media members peppered Ohio State players with questions about the loss in the post-season news conference, Matta interrupted to say, "Come on, man, that team won the SEC Tournament. That's a good team."

A few minutes later, the coach said, "I apologize. That's the best team we've played this year."

A team that is certainly better than a No. 4 seed, but as Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim said after Selection Sunday, "You can play your way out of a bad seed. You can't play your way out of the NIT."

Now, Kentucky is one win away from playing its way into the Final Four.

Reach John Clay at 859-231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com. Follow him on Twitter at @johnclayiv.

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