NEWARK, N.J. – After helping carry the load for Ohio State all season, Jared Sullinger was the last to leave the court.
With a glum look affixed to his face, the freshman forward was the final Buckeye to slink back toward his team’s locker room. One space in front of him, senior guard Jon Diebler pulled his jersey over his mouth and screamed, later describing those moments as a blur.
So ended a season full of promise. The Buckeyes, who captured an outright Big Ten title and the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, bowed out in the Sweet 16 with a 62-60 loss to No. 4 seed Kentucky that had the team’s seniors red-eyed and speaking in hushed tones inside their locker room at the Prudential Center.
Throughout the tournament, OSU’s locker room resembled more a carnival than a place of business. After bowing out in the Sweet 16 last season with a three-point loss to Tennessee, the Buckeyes replaced the national freshman of the year and did not miss a beat, fashioning a 34-2 record entering Friday night’s game.
With the clock just past midnight, it resembled a tomb. In one corner sat Diebler, trying to explain the momentum swings of the final seconds. In another was Sullinger, white towel wrapped around his shoulders, telling anyone who would listen that he plans to return for his sophomore season in Columbus.
In a game that featured 19 lead changes and 11 ties, it was the Wildcats who delivered the final blow. With the score knotted at 60, freshman guard Brandon Knight pushed the ball up the right side of the court and found OSU’s pesky Aaron Craft waiting. Faking the drive, he created the necessary preparation and launched a mid-range jumper.
It swished through the net with 5.4 seconds left, but the Buckeyes would get one final rebuttal. Quickly pushing the ball up the left side of the court, Craft found junior guard William Buford along the left wing. A 44.4 percent three-point shooter for the season and the team’s second-leading scorer at 14.6 points per game, Buford was in the final seconds of his worst shooting performance of the season.
When he let the ball fly, he was 2 of 15 from the floor and 1 of 2 from three-point range. Dead on, the shot drew the front of the rim and bounced upward but not forward. In a scrum for the ball near the hoop, the Wildcats knocked it toward halfcourt as time expired.
Just like that, a season that seemed destined for a national championship instead ended in heartbreak for the Buckeyes (34-3).
“I had a great look,” Buford said. “It just didn’t fall for me. Shots did not fall for me. I felt like I had great looks coming off of ball screens and coming off of curls. I just wasn’t able to knock shots down.”
Knight’s jumper answered a dagger from Diebler that appeared to have the game headed for overtime. After a banked runner from DeAndre Liggins gave his team a 60-57 lead with 36.2 seconds left, OSU head coach Thad Matta called timeout and could be seen speaking directly to Diebler in the huddle.
The senior’s first attempt to get off a tying trey from the right wing was denied, but he received the ball and found an opening from the top of the circle. The Big Ten’s all-time leader in made-three pointers flicked his wrist and drained what would be the final attempt of his career with 21.2 seconds left, igniting the crowd of 18,343 and setting the stage for Knight’s basket.
For the game, the Buckeyes shot a season-low 32.8 percent (19 of 58). Sullinger led the way with 21 points on 7 of 14 shooting and came on in the second half after being held in check by Kentucky’s Josh Harrellson, who led his team with 17 points on 7 of 9 shooting.
Diebler finished with 16 points and senior forward David Lighty added 12 in the final games of their OSU careers. Buford had nine.
“Some of the shots we missed are shots we have been making all year,” Diebler said. “You have to give them credit. I thought they did a good job of challenging shots with their length.
“We were going against length all year and those are shots that we make, and tonight they weren’t going in.”
After falling behind by seven points early on, the Wildcats responded once Knight was reinserted into the lineup with two fouls at the 11:17 mark. From that point, Kentucky would score on eight straight possessions. The final points on the run came on a pair of free-throws by Knight with 7:50 remaining that gave his team a 23-20 lead.
The Buckeyes would answer the 14-4 run with a three-pointer from Diebler that knotted the score. From there, the lead would change hands five times and the game would be tied two more times before the teams headed to their locker rooms deadlocked at 30.
OSU earned its points at the charity stripe. Five Wildcats were whistled for two fouls each, and the Buckeyes turned 11 Kentucky fouls into 12 points from the charity stripe on 15 attempts. That helped cover an 8 for 26 (30.8 percent) shooting percentage in the first half.
In the second half, OSU got just six free-throw attempts and hit four of them.
The Buckeyes tied it with a free throw from Diebler with 28.1 seconds remaining, and it took some solid defense to keep the score there. With Lighty draped all over him, Kentucky’s Terrence Jones missed a jumper in the final seconds that could have given his team the lead.