Las Vegas – Poise.
There was plenty to like about what No. 5 Ohio State showed in Saturday’s 71-65 win against No. 6 Kentucky as part of the CBSSports Classic. Inside T-Mobile Arena, the Buckeyes traded blow after blow with the Wildcats before improving to 11-1 in a game that every bit felt like an NCAA Tournament affair.
And yet, the Buckeyes led for 33:23, only trailed for 3:29 and kept Kentucky at arm’s length for basically the entire game. There are a number of reasons for that, but all the hows come down to one why, and it was mentioned six times during a postgame press conference featuring coach Chris Holtmann and juniors Kaleb Wesson and Kyle Young.
What did it take to keep answering every Kentucky challenge?
“Poise,” Wesson said as the first word of his portion of the press conference. “I think we approached every possession with poise, or most possessions. I feel like we just came out and tried to get the best shot on every possession and that helped us get the win.”
It was a one-point Ohio State lead at the half, and Wesson had his shot blocked on the first possession after halftime. Kentucky would have two chances with the ball to take the lead, but CJ Walker came up with a steal and EJ Montgomery airballed a jumper before Wesson hit a free throw to give the Buckeyes a 38-36 lead.
Then Andre Wesson took a charge – one of three the Buckeyes took in this game – to negate a Tyrese Maxey basket. From there, the Wildcats would have four more possessions with a chance to tie the game or take the lead. They went like this:
*Ohio State led 42-39 when Kahlil Whitney was fouled on a drive with 15:47 to play but missed the tying free throw.
*Ohio State was ahead 45-44 with 14:11 to play when Andre Wesson was credited with a block on Whitney (my notes say D.J. Carton blocked Ashton Hagans).
*Ohio State led 47-44 when Maxey rushed a bad three-point attempt that he missed.
*Ohio State led 57-54 when Carton knifed into the paint and nabbed the ball from Nick Richards, leading to a Luther Muhammad bucket at the other end.
“He made a critical play there,” Holtmann said. “He’s got strong hands. He’s quick. He anticipated well, and when he’s alert off the ball defensively he can be really effective.”
*The final one came with Ohio State ahead 59-56. Kentucky’s Nate Sestina went to the rim, but Kaleb Wesson blocked him. It was one of six second-half blocks by the Buckeyes, and when Muhammad followed that with a three-pointer with 3:53 to play it was a two-possession game for the remainder.
Kentucky kept punching. But so did Ohio State.
“Poise,” Young said. “That was one thing we preached going into the huddles. We knew it was going to get loud at times, so when that happened we knew we had to stay within each other and we were able to do that.”
Just like that, the Buckeyes have claimed three wins against top-10 teams before heading home for Christmas. With the wins against No. 10 Villanova (76-51 on Nov. 13), No. 7 North Carolina (74-49 on Dec. 4) and now this win against the Wildcats, this Ohio State team is the first in program history to have three top-10 wins before the holiday.
The last Buckeyes team to beat three top-10 teams in one season was the 2012-13 one, which beat No. 4 Michigan State on Feb. 24, 2013, No. 2 Indiana on March 5 and then No. 8 Michigan State again on March 16. The win against the Hoosiers was on the road and the second against the Spartans came in the Big Ten tournament.
“The counter-punches, teams going back and forth, the 40-minute grind is what we talk about,” Kaleb Wesson said. “I feel like we went out there with that mind-set and that mentality and came out with the win.”
Back in action
After missing the last two games with an injury to the cartilage around one of his ribs, sophomore Duane Washington Jr. returned to the lineup and checked into the game with 12:49 to play in the first half. Not even 30 seconds later, he squared up for his first three-point attempt.
He airballed it. Then, when he got a second attempt a minute and a half later, it struck only the edge of the front of the rim before falling short. It was clear the shooting guard was a little rusty, but he would finish eight points on 2-for-7 shooting in 14 minutes off the bench.
He also got a pair of quick hooks from Holtmann for forced shots, but his presence on the court gave the Wildcats someone else to worry about.
“That’s huge,” Young said of his return. “D’s really important to us. You could tell when we’re missing somebody like that, the fantastic shooter that he is, but just to have everybody back all together as one, that’s where we do our best.”
Stop the shooter
Kentucky entered the game as one of the nation’s worst three-point shooting teams. The Wildcats were shooting 27.5 percent from deep, a number affected by an injury that cost Bucknell graduate transfer Nate Sestina three games. After returning and playing in Wednesday’s game against Utah but not attempting a shot, he was 3 for 13 on the season.
At the half, he was 3 for 6 from three and had 11 points.
“He was difficult for us,” Holtmann said. “Our entire halftime was consumed with how we were going to guard his ball screens. We talked about doing a few different things from switching to full rotating. He’s important for them.”
Sestina would hit two more threes in the second half, but they were his only such attempts.
“He’s a great player,” Young said. “We’d played against him previously so we kind of knew what his game is about. He’s a big-time player. He made big shots.”
Last year, Sestina had 10 points in 13 minutes against the Buckeyes and was 2 for 4 from three.
With the veteran serving as the only significant three-point shooting threat, the Buckeyes threw a zone defense against the Wildcats more than they had all season combined.
“We didn’t really go into the game, actually I didn’t even talk to our players about playing zone,” Holtmann said. “We have it in our bag but I did not anticipate doing it and playing zone. I’m watching one more game this morning and I just had that thought like, I probably want to give it a look for a possession or two. I didn’t tell the staff. It was one of those game-time decisions.”
Sestina didn’t get a three-point attempt during the final 14 minutes.
“They switched and did some stuff,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “And that guy (Holtmann) can coach, too.”
Of the six blocks the Buckeyes had during the second half, none was more impressive than the one Andre Wesson had with 12:02 remaining when he chased down Maxie for a block from behind.
His younger brother was only a little impressed.
“It was a’ight,” Kaleb Wesson said with a smile. “It was cool. Nice to see. Everybody said, ‘Ooh, ahh.’ We had to go onto the next play. I was ready to go into the next play.”
As you (hopefully) read earlier this week, this game had a little extra juice for Holtmann and his family owing to his upbringing in Kentucky. After beating the Wildcats, he said it mostly felt like any other game.
For his family, though, it might’ve been a different story.
“I think it was really, you’re so locked in and dialed in on preparing your team for, obviously Kentucky is Kentucky so they’re not just another opponent,” he said. “They’re a tremendous program, tremendous coach, tremendous players and obviously I am from there, but it was really about our players executing and that’s what I tried to lose myself in.
“I’m sure my brother enjoyed it and mom and dad did, but we’ll move forward.”
When it was all over, the Buckeyes ran to their meager cheering section that had been dwarfed by Kentucky fans to celebrate with the faithful.
“We just try to show love to our fans coming out to road games,” Kaleb Wesson said. “We understand it’s hard to get out to road games, spending the money to come watch us play. We appreciate that.”
“Coach Cal, I noticed, has a way of saying things like that heading into the game. He anointed us No. 1 there going into this game and I probably would’ve done the same, to be honest with you. No, we’re not putting any stock into the haters or No. 1. We got our fannies drilled at Minnesota, but it’s a great win leading into Christmas. I don’t want to understate it.” – Holtmann, when asked if he had a message to the haters after Calipari had called the Buckeyes the No. 1 team in the nation earlier in the week.