Few people expected Ohio State to come away with a win when the Buckeyes traveled to Brooklyn, N.Y., for the CBS Sports Classic Saturday.
Facing No. 4 Kentucky, a team the Buckeyes hadn’t beaten since 1987, Ohio State had shown little evidence that they would be able to topple a top tier foe, its 20-point loss to Connecticut a week earlier still fresh on everyone’s mind.
But Ohio State emerged with a 74-67 victory, a huge win for Thad Matta’s team which has been hovering around .500 all season and has losses to Louisiana Tech and UT-Arlington on its resume.
On paper, it’s a tough victory to explain, but there were a few key reasons that the Buckeyes were able to get by far their best win of the season.
The Buckeyes have shown they are capable of playing with a high motor in earlier games this season, but they struggled to maintain that effort and intensity throughout the entire 40 minutes.
That was no such problem against Kentucky. Ohio State led for much of the game and the hustle stats were there as the team recorded nine steals and 13 offensive rebounds.
“The energy was definitely higher,” Keita Bates-Diop said. “From beginning to end, the energy was at the top. The magnitude of the game, it’s Kentucky, UCLA and North Carolina just played before us. We needed a big win. Just everything came together at once.”
The biggest difference may have been that the team’s defensive energy was not tied to their offensive success. Late in the first half the Buckeyes didn’t score for a 6:35 stretch that concluded with just 1:15 left in the opening stanza, but Ohio State held Kentucky to just six points over that stretch.
“I thought we handled adverse situations better than we have all season long,” Matta said. “Because this team, you look at some of the games that we’ve played this year and one mistake has led to another mistake and another mistake and I thought we did a good job when we kind of hit a slow spurt scoring late in the first half, our guys kept defending they kept defending and those are the things that you hope you can build off of.”
Simple Game Plan
The Buckeyes also cited better preparation for their play against the Wildcats.
The two days of intense preparation go the team ready, Bates-Diop, and the game plan was simple enough that it was easier for the young Buckeyes to execute.
“I think preparing the way we did was a big part of it,” the forward said. “The two-day prep, we were very focused and in tune.
“We know exactly what we need to do. We know we can play with and beat anybody so we’re going to continue to do that.”
It helped that Kentucky does not run a complicated offense as the Wildcats rely on using their athletes to get in the lane and create opportunities.
“I think we had a very good understanding of what we needed to do,” Matt said. “It wasn’t real difficult to understand what we were attempting to do. I saw our guys during the game thinking what they needed to do and that to me is a big step in the right direction.”
Point Guard and Center Play
The Buckeyes biggest win of the season came as they go the best play from the point guard and center position that they have all season.
JaQuan Lyle and A.J. Harris finished with a combined 17 points and two assists with five turnovers, but their impact was bigger than the stat line, Matta said.
“I thought both guys were very effective on Saturday and they were the antithesis of each other on Saturday in terms of JaQuan played slower and more physical and A.J. played faster, which was a great equalizer I think in terms of keeping Kentucky off balance,” the coach said.
“I thought both guys handled the situations really, really well. A.J., we’ve been trying to get him to have that burst of speed and then back out, and he did that.”
Trevor Thompson started at center and had 10 points with five rebounds and five blocks while Daniel Giddens came off the bench with six points in three rebounds.
“Going into the game I was just as calm as possible,” Thompson said. “I wasn’t trying to get myself too excited or too riled up. I kind of wanted to keep a cool demeanor. Just in practice, we had a really good practice and went really hard and that was pretty much what translated into the game.”