Wins never come easy in the NCAA tournament, and Sunday’s matchup between Ohio State and Kentucky bore that out. After leading by as many as 19 points, the Buckeyes had to fend off a wild comeback by the Wildcats to notch a 82-68 victory and advance to Sweet 16.
Kentucky, playing on its home floor, never had a lead, but pulled to within one point with six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Ohio State then went on a 12-2 run over the next four minutes to pull away.
Kelsey Mitchell, the Big Ten’s player of the year, bounced back from less than stellar performances her past two games, scoring 21 points to lead the Buckeyes. 19 of those 21 came in the first half, though, as the Wildcats threw traps and double teams at Ohio State’s star. It meant the Buckeyes needed others to step up, and that’s exactly what Shayla Cooper, Tori McCoy, and Linnae Harper did.
Cooper scored 15 and grabbed eight rebounds, while McCoy put up a double-double with 14 and 12. Harper, though, who started her college career with Kentucky, was the ultimate X-factor. The junior from Chicago affected every facet of the game, finishing with 12 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists, and two steals.
The Wildcats were led by senior Makayla Epps, who scored 21 points. Fellow senior Evelyn Akhator added 14 points and a monster 23 rebounds, while sophomore Maci Morris scored 12.
Mitchell started the game in a great rhythm, scoring 10 of Ohio State’s first 12 points. Akhator scored the first six for Kentucky, and she, Epps, and Morris scored all but two of the team’s points in the first quarter. After a tight ten minutes, the Buckeyes held a 20-16 lead.
The second quarter began with a 14-2 Ohio State run, with Cooper knocking down a three-pointer and a jumper in that span. Mitchell hit a three and a jumper of her own, and the lead was 34-18 with six minutes remaining in the half.
Sierra Calhoun knocked down a pair of threes and Harper hit a jumper, as the scarlet and gray continued to turn it on. Mitchell scored the squad’s final four points of the frame, sending the Buckeyes to the locker room with a commanding 46-31 advantage.
The 19 first half points for Mitchell came on 7-for-11 shooting. Meanwhile, Ohio State held Kentucky to a dismal 29 percent from the floor, including just 1-for-8 from three-point range.
The Buckeyes scored the first four points after the half thanks to layups by McCoy and Calhoun, but the Wildcats battled back, going on a 10-2 run and then following that up with a 7-0 run. Epps and Morris led the way on offense, and a locker room adjustment to start doubling Mitchell paid dividends.
Mitchell was just 1-for-6 in the quarter and turned the ball over twice. Kentucky had cut the lead to just eight points with ten minutes to play.
In the final frame, an Epps jumper and a Morris triple cut the lead to three right out of the gate. Harper responded by scoring four straight against her former teammates, but Epps kept making shots, and an elbow jumper made it a 65-64 ballgame.
That’s when Ohio State went on the run that would ultimately put the game out of reach. Cooper scored eight of the team’s final 10 points, stepping up as Mitchell was taken away by Kentucky’s defense.
So the Buckeyes are Sweet 16 bound. They await the winner of tonight’s Notre Dame-Purdue second round game. The Irish are the top seed in the region, while the Boilermakers eliminated Ohio State from the Big Ten tournament two weekends ago, so regardless of opponent, moving on to the Elite 8 will be the greatest challenge the team has faced to date this season.