LAS VEGAS — Down a long, nondescript hallway awaited a hostile crowd. No. 5 Ohio State was keeping loose as UCLA and North Carolina played out the string of their game at T-Mobile Arena, and a date with No. 6 Kentucky in the nightcap of the doubleheader loomed as the Buckeyes awaited their entrance.
Some stood against the concrete walls. Some paced. And as usual, Duane Washington Jr. was talking.
“What a time to be a Buckeye!” he yelled at his teammates. “Soak it all in. Count your blessings.”
‘Tis the season, after all.
In their final game before everyone headed home to celebrate Christmas, the Buckeyes led throughout and fended off the Wildcats with a 71-65 win in the CBS Sports Classic.
“To get a win in a somewhat neutral site is fun,” coach Chris Holtmann said. “Players win games like this, and these guys stepped up and made plays.”
In a highly competitive game with highlights at both ends, the Buckeyes (11-1) had more of them. There was Andre Wesson chasing down a Kentucky player for a block. CJ Walker took a charge, one of three by the Buckeyes, against another Kentucky player in a full sprint in transition. Throughout, there was freshman D.J. Carton, hitting a step-back three and then throwing a no-look bounce pass through three defenders for a Kyle Young dunk.
The Buckeyes took the lead with 8:30 remaining in the first half on an athletic drive and finish from Carton and would not trail again.
“There were a lot of those plays out there,” junior Kaleb Wesson said. “You’ve got some of the charges we took, the blocks we had, some of the big rebounds we pulled down. You can go with any play in the game, but we just came out and played hard today and got the win.”
The Wildcats (8-3) countered heavily with grad transfer Nate Sestina, who played against the Buckeyes last season for Bucknell. Slowed by an injury this season, the forward entered the evening 3 for 13 from behind the arc on a team that was collectively shooting 27.5 percent from deep. But he made 5 of 8 three-pointers for a game-high 17 points. Holtmann said the entirety of halftime centered on trying to limit Sestina’s opportunities, and he only had two three-point attempts during the final 20 minutes.
Carton’s floater with 1:17 left pushed the Ohio State lead to a game-high seven points and sent the Kentucky fans to the exits when the Wildcats called timeout. Walking back upcourt, Carton balled his fists and screamed, “Let’s go!” He finished with a team-high 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting and added five rebounds.
“We know what he can bring to us,” junior Kyle Young said. “He was able to stay poised tonight; make some big plays for us down the stretch.”
The win gives Ohio State a pair of wins away from home against top-10 teams in the same season for the first time since the 2012-13 season. That year, the Buckeyes beat No. 2 Indiana on the road and No. 8 Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament.
Kentucky has three losses in its first 11 games for the first time since it started the 2013-14 season with an 8-3 record.
In addition to his pregame talk, Washington returned to action after a two-game absence with a rib injury and finished with eight points in 14 minutes. Of the eight Buckeyes to see action, seven of them scored between seven and 13 points.
And when it was all over, they all sprinted to the Ohio State cheering section to celebrate.