NEWARK, N.J. - Ohio State roared through the regular season, the Big Ten tournament and two rounds in the NCAA tournament as a swashbuckling juggernaut riding the talents of freshman star Jared Sullinger and torrid outside shooting to romp after romp.
Kentucky's frantic defense slowed the Buckeyes down, then coolhanded Kentucky guard Brandon Knight sent Sullinger and company home early.
Knight's 15-footer with 5 seconds left lifted the fourth-seeded Wildcats to a 62-60 victory in the East regional semifinals Friday night, setting up a rematch with North Carolina on Sunday for Final Four spot.
While Knight's second winner of the tournament lifted Kentucky (28-8) over the top-seeded Buckeyes (34-3) for the first time in six tournament meetings, it was what the Wildcats did at the other end of the floor that made all the difference.
"That's the best team we played all year," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said.
Kentucky certainly looked like it as it swarmed the Buckeyes' sharpshooters. Though Sullinger finished with 21 points and 16 rebounds, the rest of the team struggled.
Ohio State shot just 32 percent from the floor and made only six 3-pointers after hitting 28 during easy wins over Texas-San Antonio and George Mason to open the tournament.
"They flew at shooters," Ohio State's David Lighty said. "I mean they crowded the paint."
And they grew up.
The Wildcats wobbled during the regular season, at one point losing six straight games decided by five points or fewer. Coach John Calipari blamed it on the freshman-laden squad's maturity.
He kept repeating "I like my team" even as he chastised his players for failing to come through in the clutch. He doesn't have to say that anymore.
"It was tough going through it, but it benefited us," Calipari said.
Kentucky reeled off its ninth consecutive victory by rattling the Buckeyes with their pressure and taking advantage when the stage presented itself.
"We just tried to make everything hard for them," Kentucky guard Doron Lamb said. "We were all talking, bumping them every drive and contesting every shot."
All the way until the buzzer. Ohio State sprinted down the floor after Knight's make, but William Buford's 3-pointer clanked off the rim and the rebound was tapped out of harm's way.
"It was a good look, it just didn't go down," Buford said.
The Buckeyes did, meaning they'll head home early for the second straight year. Last season they were upset in the same round by Tennessee. This time they were done in by poor shooting and a spirited performance by a couple of Kentucky veterans who were afterthoughts a year ago.
Senior center Josh Harrellson held his own against Sullinger, scoring 17 points and grabbing 10 rebounds as the Wildcats sent the seemingly dominant Buckeyes home early again. Junior swingman DeAndre Liggins played his usual suffocating defense and attacked the basket consistently to finish with 15 points.
The victory proved sweet vindication for the two holdovers, who were mostly spectators last season as Calipari revitalized the program behind a star-studded freshman class led by John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins.
Harrellson and Liggins took this year's group of youngsters under their wing and delivered the kind of veteran presence the Wildcats could have used last season, which ended with a loss to an experienced West Virginia squad in the East regional final.
"Our veteran players who were not significant a year ago have now taken on this team," Calipari said. "That's why we're still playing, because of those guys."
Matta called Harrellson the most underrated player in the country. Liggins isn't too bad, either.
Neither is Sullinger, who said in the aftermath he expects to return as a sophomore next year, if only to wash out the taste of a bitter end to an otherwise spectacular season.
"I'm definitely coming back next year," he said. "I need to work on a lot of things. I have to come back. I'm coming back to win."
Ohio State rolled through the regular season but like the last two top overall seeds the Buckeyes are going home early. Louisville went out in the regional finals in 2009. Kansas didn't make it out of the first weekend a year ago.
The Buckeyes played so well - winning by an average of 30.5 points - the Wildcats appeared to be no more than a speed bump.
The win gives Kentucky a chance to avenge a loss to the Tar Heels earlier in the season. The Wildcats fell 75-73 in Chapel Hill in December.
"North Carolina has really progressed since the first time we played them," said Harrellson. "They are a totally different team."
So is Kentucky, which will go try to make it back to the Final Four for the first time since 1998. Last year's spectacular resurgence ended with a bitter loss to West Virginia in the regional final.
Now, the group that has spent most of the season trying to live up to the standard set by Wall and company can do the preceding freshman class one better.
Thanks in part to a point guard who is blessed with terrible short term memory. Knight missed seven of his first nine shots but never hesitated after Ohio State's Jon Diebler tied it at 60 with 21 seconds left.
Rather than call timeout, Calipari let Knight go to work and he lofted a beautiful jumper over Ohio State counterpart Aaron Craft. The degree of difficulty wasn't quite as high as the acrobatic lay-in he had to beat Princeton in the second round, but it was close.
"We knew what we wanted to do: get the ball in Brandon's hands," Miller said. "He's done it before, we trust him with the ball and he came through again."