LEXINGTON, Ky. - For the Ohio State women's basketball team to truly improve on its 2015-16 season, the Buckeyes will have to get by Kentucky on the Wildcats home floor Sunday in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Ohio State and Kentucky are both coming off close wins in the first round of the tournament as the host Wildcats snuck by No. 13-seed Belmont 73-70, before the Buckeyes held off a late run by No. 12-seed Western Kentucky to take a 70-63 win over the Lady Toppers.
Now, for the first time in women's tournament history, the Buckeyes and Wildcats are set to meet for the chance to play in the Sweet 16 which will take place just down the road at Rupp Arena. Kentucky (22-10, 11-5) will host Ohio State (27-6, 15-1) in its home venue of Memorial Coliseum, where the Wildcats hold a record of 15-3 on the season.
A year ago, Ohio State's path to the Sweet 16 was though Columbus as the Buckeyes earned hosting privileges as the No. 3-seed in their region. Now a No. 5-seed, OSU will have to play what will certainly equate to a road game at No. 4-seed UK, something head coach Kevin McGuff said should make for a tough environment.
“It will be a great environment here tomorrow. The Kentucky fans are outstanding and I know they’ll come out and support," McGuff said Saturday. "We’ll have to certainly battle those elements. But we’ve been in those situations before. I’m kind of thankful that we’ll be in an environment that will be as good as it will be.”
As for the game itself, the Wildcats are led by senior guard Makayla Epps, who is coming off of perhaps her best performance of the season. Epps dropped 30 points on 11 of 18 shooting in Kentucky's win over Belmont in the first round, her second straight 30-point performance.
In order to contain Epps' playmaking ability, McGuff said Ohio State will have to control the pace at which the game is played.
“Epps is playing great. She’s playing fantastic basketball right now. The thing I really love about her, she really manages the game for Kentucky. She kind of has a knack where she knows when to speed it up, she knows when to slow it down, she makes sure everyone is in the right position," McGuff said. "We’re not going to stop her, but we hopefully can slow her down a little bit and not let her go crazy."
With post player Stephanie Mavunga still being listed as a game time decision by McGuff, Ohio State will once again lean on freshman Tori McCoy, senior Shayla Cooper and junior Alexa Hart off the bench to contain Kentucky's post players, in particular Evelyn Ahkator.
The senior forward for the Wildcats has 17 double-doubles this season including a 22 point, 10 rebound performance against Belmont in the first round. Ahkator and Epps combined for 52 of UK's 73 points against the Bruins, taking 33 of the Wildcats 56 shots.
The volume shooting from Epps is no different from that of Ohio State's star guard, Kelsey Mitchell. Following a tough loss to Purdue in the Big Ten semi-finals in which she shot just 3 of 22 from the field, Mitchell managed 15 points on 5 of 15 shooting in the win over WKU.
Mitchell said that she felt good after burying a pair of second half three-pointers against WKU, but added she was more encouraged by the fact that her teammates stepped up around her to help propel OSU to the first round win.
“I think that any player that plays basketball or any player that plays a sport in general – once you see something go in and once you see a couple shots fall, it’s always good for anybody," Mitchell said. "But on the flip side of things, it was also good for our teammates to come in and do great things for us."
For Ohio State to get the win, it will undoubtedly need someone other than Mitchell to provide scoring. Against WKU, it was Asia Doss who chipped in a season-high 15 points off the bench.
The bench play could become the difference in the game, as Ohio State traditionally plays nine in its rotation while the Wildcats use primarily just seven.
The winner between Ohio State and Kentucky will advance to the Sweet 16 to play either No. 1-seed Notre Dame or No. 9-seed Purdue at Rupp Arena in the Lexington regional semi-final. The Buckeyes split a pair of games against the Boilermakers this season, in which they scored season lows of 61 and 60 points.
The Buckeyes and Wildcats are set to tip at 12:05 p.m. on Sunday and will be televised on ESPN2.
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