In a game that felt like an NCAA Tournament second-weekend contest, the No. 5 Ohio State Buckeyes held off an incredibly talented No. 6 Kentucky Wildcats squad 71-65 in Las Vegas as part of the CBS Sports Classic.
Four years ago on a Saturday night in Brooklyn, the Ohio State Buckeyes faced off with the No. 4 team in the country, the Kentucky Wildcats, in the CBS Sports Classic. Ohio State, coached by Thad Matta at the time, was 5-5 and did not look like an NCAA-tournament caliber team (they ended up going to the NIT).
Kentucky, on the other hand, was 9-1, ranked in the top five in both the AP and Coaches’ Polls, and had three future NBA players on their roster.
All signs pointed to a Kentucky romp, but the Buckeyes, behind a combined 26 points from Keita Bates-Diop and Marc Loving, knocked off the No. 4 Wildcats, 74-67. It was the highlight of an otherwise disappointing season that saw the Buckeyes lose in the second round of the NIT.
Fast forward four years.
On Saturday night, No. 5 Ohio State (11-1, 1-1) had a chance to get another win over No. 6 Big Blue (8-3) in the CBS Sports Classic, although this time expectations were much higher for OSU.
Despite a season-high 21 turnovers in their last game, a win against the Southeast Missouri State Redhawks, including five from point guard CJ Walker, Chris Holtmann stuck with the same starting five he’s used recently. CJ Walker started at point, Luther Muhammad at the off-guard spot, and the trio of Andre Wesson, Kyle Young, and Kaleb Wesson as the three forwards. Duane Washington Jr., who missed the previous two games with a rib injury, came off the bench.
In a meeting between two teams who rely on their stingy defenses to win games, buckets were not easy to come by early. In the first four minutes, Ohio State and Kentucky combined for seven turnovers. The Wildcats also racked up six fouls in the first few minutes, much to the chagrin of Kentucky head coach John Calipari.
While the teams were a combined 5-9 shooting from the floor early on, turnovers limited productivity, and Ohio State held a 9-6 lead after the first few minutes.
The score would be 13-5 without those 6 turnovers by Ohio State— Land-Grant Holy Land (@Landgrant33) December 21, 2019
While Ohio State continued to turn the ball over early in this one (six of them in the first seven minutes), Kentucky bailed them out with plenty of early fouls. With UK committing their seventh foul at the 12:28 mark of the first half, Ohio State was in the bonus early, forcing the Wildcats to play defense a bit more cautiously, or else risk sending the Buckeyes to the line. OSU took advantage hitting 10-of-12 (83.3%) free throws before halftime.
At the under-12 timeout the two teams were tied 13-13, headlined by six points from Tyrese Maxey and five from Kaleb Wesson.
In an odd turn of events, both teams were shooting an identical 47 percent from the floor at the 12:15 mark of the first half, when officials called a timeout after Kentucky’s Nate Sestina knocked heads with Kaleb Wesson. Despite efficient shooting on both ends, the score was only 22-21 by this time, as a plethora of turnovers and fouls limited either team from taking many shots.
In a back-and-forth battle, Kyle Young was the anchor that held it all together in the first half for the Buckeyes, with 8 points, 2 rebounds, and a steal over the first 16 minutes, including this thunderous dunk off a dime from D.J. Carton (admittedly after missing the alley-oop a few minutes earlier):
The two teams traded points through the final few minutes of the half. Ohio State led the majority of the first half (13:22 to 3:29), but was never able to extend it beyond four points.
When the first half buzzer sounded and both teams were able to head to their respective locker rooms for some much-needed oxygen, the Buckeyes were still holding on, leading 37-36.
At times it looked ugly, with the two squads combining for 20 personal fouls and 15 turnovers. Kentucky’s Ashton Hagans was especially impactful with three steals in the first half. At the same time, both teams were shooting north of 50 percent at the break. Basically, if you could hang onto the ball long enough to take a shot, there was a decent chance that it was going to drop.
Young was nearly perfect in the first half for the Buckeyes, scoring 10 points on 3-of-3 shooting while also hitting all four of his free throws. For the Wildcats, Sestina was the go-to guy, dropping 11 points on 4-of-8 shooting, including 3-for-6 from 3-point range. Sestina’s three 3-pointers matched how many he’d hit in the first 10 games of the season combined.
The foul/turnover-fest picked up right where it left off in the second half, with the two teams combining for five more giveaways in the first few minutes of the second half. Sestina continued his lights-out shooting, knocking down his fourth 3-pointer of the game, which outpaced how many he’d hit in the previous 10 games combined. Despite this, the Buckeyes led 42-39 at the first media timeout.
Ohio State opened up a five-point lead by the second media timeout of the half, and their defense — especially in the paint — was giving Kentucky fits. The Wildcats only scored eight points through the first nine minutes of the second half, as things like this kept happening to them every time they dared venture too close to the basket:
And like this:
Andre Wesson said NOPE pic.twitter.com/WhIwK5KAmU— Land-Grant Holy Land (@Landgrant33) December 22, 2019
Despite Kentucky’s difficulties on the offensive end, they made it clear that Ohio State was not going to run away with this one. After falling behind by seven, Kentucky clawed back. A mini 5-0 Wildcat run, capped off by an Immauel Quickley floater, cut the Buckeye lead back down to two at the 6:58 mark of the second half, 56-54.
Ohio State had slowed down on the turnovers, but Hagans and Quickley continuously pestered Ohio State, showing why they’re regarded as two of the better defensive guards in college basketball.
We have got a 2-point game. pic.twitter.com/6QYmuEpbYe— CBS Sports CBB (@CBSSportsCBB) December 22, 2019
Kaleb Wesson was called for his fifth foul at the 3:30 mark of the second half, but his presence had been felt. He had 12 points and 8 rebounds, but his interior defense on Sestina and EJ Montgomery was crucial in Ohio State’s fight to beat the No. 6 team in the nation.
Kaleb Wesson said NOPE, also pic.twitter.com/a9VPvdg3aF— Land-Grant Holy Land (@Landgrant33) December 22, 2019
Walker’s 3-pointer with 28 seconds left on the clock, his biggest shot as a Buckeye to date, put Ohio State up eight, and it was the dagger that finished the Wildcats.
After committing five turnovers in his previous game, it was only fitting that the transfer-guard was the one to land the final blow in a game where neither team was able to solidly pull ahead until the final buzzer sounded. When all was said and done, Chris Holtmann’s squad escaped Las Vegas with a 71-65 win.
Carton paced the Buckeyes with 13 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 assists. Kaleb Wesson was right behind him with 12 points, and Young chipped in 10, all of which came in the first half. Collectively, Ohio State had seven players score at least seven points, and as a team shot 50 percent from the floor against one of the best defenses in the country.
Ohio State will have over a week off before their next game, which will be on Dec. 29 against the No. 25 West Virginia Mountaineers in Cleveland. The game will be broadcast at 12 noon ET on FS1.