LEXINGTON, Ky. - Ohio State junior guard Linnae Harper is in one of the most unique positions in college sports. A Kentucky transfer, Harper is set to take on her former team, in her former home arena, for the right to advance to the Sweet 16.
After the NCAA bracket was announced Monday evening, Harper said it would likely feel strange for her stepping back into Memorial Coliseum wearing scarlet and gray instead of blue and white.
“It’s definitely going to be a little weird. The first game, I’m playing two former UK teammates (WKU's Kyvin Goodin-Rogers and Jaycee Coe) so it’s going to be weird, but I think it will go well," Harper said March 13.
Fortunately for her, the game did in fact go as she predicted, as No. 5-seed Ohio State defeated No. 12-seed Western Kentucky in the first round, 70-63. Harper however scored just two points on 1 of 5 shooting in the victory in her return to Lexington on Friday.
She admitted Saturday that she felt some jitters walking back into the arena, but added she felt herself settle in as the game went on as she was able to pull down three boards and collect two steals in 18 minute son action off the bench.
"There's definitely a lot of emotions, but it is good to be here," Harper said Saturday. "(There was) a little nervousness but it was okay."
While she played in her former home arena against WKU, she will be taking on her former team Sunday and one of the players she could end up guarding is a former teammate and the Wildcats leading scorer.
Kentucky senior Makayla Epps lived with Harper for a year at UK and said that she and Harper have maintained a close relationship since Harper left for Columbus. Despite their relationship however, Epps said once the ball is tipped, the two will become fierce competitors.
“I was very close to Linnae when she was here. We were roommates for a year and she’s kind of like one of my best friends," Epps said Saturday. "Kyvin Goodin-Rogers and Linnae both (sent) me messages just excited to be back in Lexington and excited to see each other. It’s all good fun outside the lines but in the lines she knows that I’m going to battle and I know that she’s going to battle.”
While she has played for two different schools in her career, Harper's style of play has remained the same. In her sophomore year at Kentucky, Harper led the Wildcats in rebounding as she averaged 7.1 rebounds per game despite standing just 5-8.
Her former coach and opponent on Sunday, Matthew Mitchell said that he is not looking forward to preparing for Harper, fully knowing what she is capable of.
"She would make plays in practice on the boards that nobody, big crowds weren’t there, people weren’t there, but I got to see that every day, and it was fun to watch," Mitchell said of Harper's rebounding ability. "Hopefully, we helped her some while she was here and I hope she has a great career and I hope she plays really, really bad tomorrow and has, along with her teammates, has no success tomorrow (laughter). She was a lot of fun to coach and I think a lot of her.”
Should Ohio State and Harper come away with the win over Kentucky, they would return to Lexington the following week to play in the Sweet 16 just up the road at Rupp Arena.
For Harper, the opportunity to get to the Sweet 16 and possibly a Final Four through Lexington would be the opportunity of a lifetime.
“I think that would be the best feeling in the world, honestly. That’s one thing I’m looking forward to," she said.
The Buckeyes and Wildcats are set to tip at 12:05 p.m. at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington on ESPN2.
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