NEWARK, N.J. - He didn't hit the game-winning shot, score the most points or lead Kentucky in any statistical category. Yet UK teammates left little doubt that junior DeAndre Liggins was the reason the Wildcats beat No. 1 Ohio State 62-60 here Friday.
“He played a great game. He carried us on offense and defense. He just put us on his back and carried us,” said Kentucky junior Darius Miller. “If he was not scoring, he was creating for somebody else. On top of that, he played great defense, too. We would have got blown out if not for him. That was a great game he played.”
Liggins had 15 points on 5-for-8 shooting from the field and 5-for-7 at the foul line. He had six rebounds — all on the defensive end. He had three assists, and somehow tied his career high with three blocked shots. He played 34 minutes and had just one turnover despite constantly driving the ball inside Ohio State’s defense.
Kentucky coach John Calipari played Liggins much of the game on Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft rather than one of the Buckeyes’ potent 3-point shooter. The strategy worked as Craft was 0-for-5 from the field and had just two assists in 36 minutes, two major reasons the Cats held Ohio State to only 30 points each half.
“There are certain players on teams that you got to go at them to change the direction of the game, and that's why we did it. The start of the (second) half, I took him off Craft and you saw Craft go nutty. And I called a timeout and I put him right back on Craft. He was huge today, huge,” Calipari said.
He was huge, pesky, brilliant, tenacious or whatever other words you want to use.
He had an assist to Josh Harrellson to put UK on top 53-51. He had an assist on Brandon Knight’s 3-pointer that made it 56-53 UK. Next he took a charge from Ohio State star Jared Sullinger. He drove strong in the lane, got fouled and made both free throws to put UK ahead 58-57 with 1 minute, 36 seconds left. With 36.2 seconds left, he banked in a 5-foot shot.
When the game finally ended after Knight’s game-winning shot with 5.4 seconds left, Liggins raced to the press table in front of the UK fans, climbed on it and celebrated with the delirious fans.
“There was just a lot of emotion. That was the No. 1 team in the country we beat, so I had a lot of emotion in me,” Liggins said after the game. “I was just happy. I saw our fans in that section, so I just did it.
“That was our best game against a great team, a No. 1 team. A lot of people expected us to lose. We proved everybody wrong on this.”
Liggins has been doing that all season. With no disrespect to Harrellson — he had 17 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks to continue his stellar postseason play — who is being hailed as the nation’s most improved player, Liggins is right there with him. His decision-making is better, his shooting is vastly improved and he’s controlling his emotions better. And he’s gone from a good defender to a great defender capable of locking down anyone.
“This is the best game he had all season. He just plays with a lot of energy and when he drives the ball and creates for other players and makes plays for us and just tries not to lose, it is great for us,” UK freshman Terrence Jones said. “Nobody could stay in front of him. He was creating for other players and making plays along with playing his great defense.”
“I think is the best game he has played this whole season. He is playing great on both ends and making plays. He took a big charge. He is the reason we won the game. We all know that,” freshman Doron Lamb said. “He came in aggressive and made plays for himself and others. When he plays defense and gets energized, we all get hyper and more aggressive.”
Liggins has even become close to junior Eloy Vargas, who had never seen him so passionate and efficient in the same game.
“Me and him are cool and talk a lot. He doesn’t talk trash to me. We just talking like friends. He was huge for us. He made all the plays we needed,” Vargas said.
Of course, Liggins did talk trash — and bump Ohio State senior William Buford (2-for-16 from the field) in a way that prompted a push from Buford to let Liggins know he had got inside his head in the second half. Perhaps that’s why it was no surprise Buford missed a potential game-winning shot at the buzzer.
“I was just trash talking. At the end of the day they are good players and I will shake their hands. It was just trash talk and that happens but no punches were going to be thrown or anything happen. It was just trash talking. It’s part of the game,” Liggins said.
Well, maybe not part of everyone’s game, but it is part of Liggins’ game and he backs up the talk with his play and does it with pride.
“That is my job to have unbelievable passion and play hard,” Liggins said. “They are a great shooting team, but we did a great job contesting shots and making it hard for them. The pressure was not on us. They were the No. 1 team. Everybody had them winning, so there was not any pressure on us and I told them that during the game.”
He’ll be telling North Carolina players the same thing Sunday when UK tries to earn its first Final Four berth since 1998. Never mind that the Tar Heels edged 75-73 on Dec. 4. Liggins won’t care.
“It feels great to beat the No. 1 team. I think I am still like dreaming. It has not hit me yet, so I am just going to enjoy it because I know we earned it,” Liggins said.