Kentucky Coach John Calipari said in the preseason there would be ugly games in November and December. He added that point guard Tyler Ulis would have to play great so UK could win those games.
Kentucky’s 74-67 loss to Ohio State on Saturday proved Calipari half right.
The game was ugly, all right. But it was Jamal Murray, not Ulis, whose brilliant shooting nearly rescued the Cats.
Murray made seven of eight three-point shots in a second half that saw Kentucky mount a furious rally. He finished with a career-high 33 points, 27 coming in the second half.
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“That was one of the best performances I’ve seen in a short period of time,” Ohio State Coach Thad Matta said.
“We knew this: That he is a tremendous basketball player. He’s one guy we feared going in in terms of him being capable of getting hot. We had no idea he’d get that hot.”
Murray made his first seven three-point shots in the second half. Perhaps the deadeye shooting inspired Alex Poythress, who made his first three-pointer of the season (and first since the 2014 NCAA Tournament).
Trailing by 16 with 11 minutes left, the Cats got within 63-60 with four minutes left.
In one six-minute span, Murray scored 12 of UK’s 16 points.
“I turned to the bench at one point (and said), ‘Is there anybody who can guard him right now?’” Matta said.
An intentional foul on Ulis blunted the comeback. The referees called the foul as Ulis reached to prevent a breakaway layup.
Ohio State made the two free throws. Then UK tried to kill Ohio State’s ensuing possession by fouling freshman Daniel Giddens, who had made only six of 21 free throws this season. Giddens swished both free throws to give the Buckeyes a 67-60 lead with 2:54 left.
“That’s when you look down (the bench) and say, ‘This is about done, boys,’” Calipari said.
Kentucky (9-2) put itself in catch-up mode from the start against an Ohio State team with a Ratings Percentage Index of No. 176.
“Being the underdog, we had nothing to lose,” said Marc Loving, whose 12 points made him one of four Buckeyes in double figures. “We had a chip on our shoulder from the beginning.”
When asked what put that chip on Ohio State’s shoulder, Loving said, “Just playing a team the caliber of Kentucky. Everybody thinks you’re going to lose the game except the guys in the locker room.”
The first half lived up (or down) to the pregame billing of a competition between two inexperienced teams.
In one stretch, the Buckeyes scored on nine off 11 trips downcourt. That kind of efficiency made for a 31-17 lead with 7:48 left.
“They were the aggressor,” Calipari said. “They came after us.”
Ohio State’s seven three-pointers in the first half equaled the team average for games (7.3).
“That happens to us,” Calipari said. “Guys get beer muscles and make plays they haven’t made all year. But they out-toughed us. They out-rebounded us. They beat us to 50/50 balls.”
Even Murray was susceptible to the ebbs and flows typical of freshmen. He did not score until the 9:08 mark of the first half and didn’t score again until 3:04 remained.
“I had to take him out of the game once because ‘You’re not being aggressive,’” Calipari said. “‘We’re throwing ahead to you to score, and you’re throwing it to the point guard under the basket with a seven-footer on him.’”
Ahead 31-17, Ohio State showed its (lack of) age. The Buckeyes went more than six minutes without scoring. In that time, OSU missed 10 straight shots and committed three turnovers.
Kentucky, which made only 11 of 36 first-half shots, trailed the final 14:56 of the first half. But Ohio State’s drought enabled the Cats to close the deficit to 31-23.
The final 90 seconds stung Kentucky. After Poythress had a dunk blocked, Keita Bates-Diop hit a three-pointer from the right corner.
That sequence seemed relatively easy to swallow compared to what happened in the final five seconds.
Inbounding from the far baseline after a Kentucky miss, the Buckeyes got a three-pointer from JaQuan Lyle at the buzzer that swished over Murray.
“A huge shot,” Matta called it.
There was no immediate Kentucky rally in the second half. After Ohio State scored back-to-back baskets from the paint, UK’s deficit reached new depths at 47-31.
Murray energized Kentucky by making back-to-back three-pointers.
A failure to retrieve so-called 50/50 balls on back-to-back possessions halted UK’s momentum. An offensive rebound allowed Ohio State to hit a three-pointer.
Then with the shot clock down, the Buckeyes beat Murray to a long rebound.
Murray more than made up for it. In a 96-second spree, he hit a pair of three-pointers as part of nine straight UK points. That brought Kentucky within 57-49 at the under-eight timeout.
With UK fans alternating Go-Big-Blue and C-A-T-S chants, Kentucky kept charging.
Murray’s sixth three-pointer of the second half brought Kentucky within 62-57. Then Poythress’ first three-pointer of the season made it 63-60 heading into the final four minutes.
The next points scored were free throws resulting from Ulis’ intentional foul.