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Missing March Madness: Kentucky-Ohio State was much too sweet for early NCAA Tournament meeting

Sporting News — (Mike DeCourcy)

No matter how one is covering March Madness, it's impossible not to miss a lot.

Ordinarily, the few games I do miss occur while I'm on the scene at a concurrent game. For those days when there are no games contested at the site I'm visiting, I always make sure to scout out the most convenient sports bar with access to every game shown.

On this occasion, though, it was the night between games at the NCAA South Region in New Orleans, the eve of Butler playing against Florida for the right to compete at the 2011 Final Four. Ordinarily on that Friday evening, I would have been watching the four games at the East and Midwest regions — but I had other obligations.

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No. 1 Ohio State vs. No. 4 Kentucky, East Region, 2011

Why I missed it: Sporting News was working with a video partner, CineSport, and we were shooting round-by-round previews outside the arenas. It was necessary to tape during the Friday evening game window, and there was some sort of delay that ended up eating way more time than anticipated. I got back to my hotel with only a bit remaining in the game. I didn’t see much of anything that night except the outside of the New Orleans Arena.

What I missed: One of the most underrated tournament games, with Kentucky edging the nation’s best team and the No. 1 overall NCAA seed
Date: March 25, 2011
Site: Prudential Center, Newark, N.J.
Rules at the time: 35-second shot clock; 3-point line set at 20 feet, 9 inches; no "no-charge zone"
Coaches: John Calipari (Kentucky); Thad Matta (Ohio State)
Announcers: Jim Nantz, voice of the tournament since 1991, and Clark Kellogg, a Final Four broadcaster from 2009-14

What people remember most about 2011 was Butler shooting 18.8 percent in the NCAA championship game and Connecticut winning while shooting 34.5 percent. That Final Four is considered, to put it gently, a mutt.

If Kentucky-Ohio State had been the final — or at least played on the final weekend — then people still would be talking about it as one of the great games ever. It wasn’t a work of offensive beauty, either. Ohio State shot 32.8 percent from the field — the Buckeyes had entered as the No. 1 team in offensive efficiency, at 125 points per 100 possessions — and the Wildcats had only two players reach double figures.

It was as fiercely competitive as a tournament game possibly could be, though.

This game probably should have been played later in the tournament. It's still puzzling how the NCAA selection committee placed Kentucky — 25-8 and champions of the SEC Tournament — as the No. 4 seed in the East Region and North Carolina — 26-7 and champion of the ACC regular season — in the same bracket as Ohio State. The Buckeyes won both Big Ten titles and entered the NCAAs at 32-2.

The RPI was the metric of choice at the time. OSU was ranked No. 2, with Kentucky at No. 6 and Carolina No. 7. For those who had caught on to KenPom, his ratings had Kentucky at No. 7. How did the Buckeyes wind up with such a stacked bracket? What's really weird is their athletic director, Gene Smith, was the chairman of the selection committee.

The result was a UK-OSU matchup in the Sweet 16, and it was magnificent. The lead was exchanged 14 times in the second half. Not the game — the second half.

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Kentucky center Josh Harrellson was determined to battle Ohio State freshman star Jared Sullinger with as little help as possible, but the Wildcats did bring a double-team to bother Sullinger whenever point guard Aaron Craft, who was a major disruptor on defense but not an elite shooter, delivered the post feed.

It's a measure of how great Sullinger was, in that season and on that night, that Harrellson could be said to have performed exceptionally while Sullinger managed 21 points and 16 rebounds. Harrellson allowed him to shoot only 7-of-14, and the UK big man shot 7-of-9 for 17 points. The 10 rebounds Harrellson gathered tended to be massive, perhaps because most every one was both contested and consequential.

Kentucky’s defense was especially stellar during a second-half stretch in which OSU missed nine consecutive shots — that included two blown fast breaks in a row. A 36-32 Buckeyes advantage turned into a 44-42 deficit inside the final dozen minutes. The teams traded the lead for the remainder of the game.

It is virtually impossible to single out a play as one that turned the game in UK's favor, except the obvious one at the end.

A 3-pointer from power forward Terrence Jones when defender David Lighty fell put UK up 50-49, but Lighty answered with a turnaround jumper to make it 51-50. Craft tried to draw a charge on Harrellson, but was late and gave up an and-one. Craft made two free throws to tie it 53-all. A beautiful drive-and-kick from DeAndre Liggins got Brandon Knight an open right-wing 3-pointer for a 56-53 lead, but the Buckeyes scored two quick buckets, including a Lighty drive down the left side set up by four screens set at the top of the key, to make it 57-56.

It went that way all the way until the final half-minute, when UK had the ball in a 60-all tie and trusted Knight — even with Craft guarding him — to conjure a game-winner. He drove to the right corner of the foul line, pulled up and — with Craft in his face — nailed a jumper with five seconds left to put UK on top.

Ohio State had two timeouts but called neither, and Craft raced the ball upcourt while ignoring Lighty, sharpshooter Jon Diebler and Sullinger to his right. He slipped a bounce pass to wing William Buford, who was 2 of 15 from the field. His attempt at a game-winning 3, with two Wildcats defenders surrounding him, caught the front rim. Make that 2 of 16.

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Calipari was asked afterward where the game, with all its lead changes, ranked among the best in which he had been involved.

"At this moment, the best of all time," Calipari said. "At this moment."

Nine years later, it still is pretty great.