LEXINGTON, Ky. - The No. 5-seed Ohio State women's basketball team held off a late surge from No. 4-seed Kentucky in the second round of the NCAA tournament to win 82-68, advancing the Sweet 16 for the second straight season.
After leading by as many as 19 early in the third quarter, Ohio State (28-6, 15-1) allowed the Wildcats (22-11, 11-5) to double them up, as Kentucky went on a 22-11 run to end the third, trailing the Buckeyes 61-53 heading into the final frame.
"During that stretch, two things happened; we weren't as good defensively. We gave up a couple of key rebounds, and then we settled for jumpers," Ohio State head coach Kevin McGuff said. "What we talked about in timeouts was, get back to getting some balance in our offense. Make sure we get to the free throw line and get to the rim."
Kentucky would cut the Ohio State lead all the way down to one after senior guard Makayla Epps buried a short range jumper with 6:04 to play before the Buckeyes answered with four straight points thanks to a driving layup from Asia Doss and a pair of free throws from Tori McCoy.
McCoy, starting again for the injured Stephanie Mavunga, then added four consecutive points in the paint to push the Ohio State lead to nine at 73-64 with 3:35 left in the game. The Buckeye lead swelled back to 11 on a breakaway layup from Ohio State senior Shayla Cooper as the Wildcats would not get any closer than seven for the rest of the game. Cooper finished with 15 points, eight of which came in the fourth quarter while McCoy finished with 14 points and 12 boards.
After getting the game within one, the Wildcats missed their final nine shots from the floor with their final four points all coming at the free throw line.
Playing in front of a raucous Kentucky crowd in Memorial Coliseum, Ohio State's Kelsey Mitchell snapped out of her funk early. After averaging just 12 points in her previous two games, Mitchell made her first three shots to score 10 of the Buckeyes first 12 points of the contest. She finished tied with a game-high 21 after scoring 19 in the first half. Mitchell made just one of her 10 shots in the second half.
McGuff said prior to the game, he pulled Mitchell aside and gave her some words of confidence.
"Kelsey didn't have her best game against Western (Kentucky). So the last thing I told her (before the game) was, 'Remember, you are the best player on the court today and don't ever forget it,'" McGuff said of his message to Mitchell. "She was ready and got us off to a great start."
Despite scoring just two points in the second half, Mitchell remained engaged in other ways, collecting a pair of assists, a steal and two rebounds in the final 20 minutes.
In years past, Mitchell said she might have shot herself and her team out of the game but against Kentucky, she found other ways to make an impact on the game.
"If this was last year, I probably would have went crazy," Mitchell said. "Growth. Take what you can get. I think I approached (this game) better than I did last year."
With Mitchell going cold in the second half, Ohio State once again got a stellar performance from one of its bench players. Playing against her former team, Linnae Harper came off the bench and put on a show early on against Kentucky.
On her first possession of the game, Harper scored an easy layup underneath before later hitting a runner in the lane on which she was fouled. In her first nine minutes against the Wildcats, she recorded four points and four assists. She finished with 12 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.
"Somebody else might have tried to make this about themselves, coming back to the place they had transferred from, but not her," McGuff said of Harper. "She just wanted to do anything she could do to contribute to our success today and she was unbelievable. She played extremely hard, she made big plays, she moved the ball and it was just an amazing performance."
After taking a 46-31 lead into the half, the Buckeyes scored the first four points of the third quarter to open up a 50-31 lead on the Wildcats after McCoy and Sierra Calhoun each scored on driving layups. However, six straight points from Epps cut the Ohio State lead to 50-37 with 6:51 to play in the third quarter.
Ohio State opened the first quarter with flurry as Mitchell scored 10 of the Buckeyes first 12 points as OSU took a 16-8 lead midway through the quarter. However, the Wildcats answered and capped the opening frame with a long jumper from Epps to bring the OSU lead to just 20-16 after one.
The Buckeyes kept their foot on the gas in the second quarter, opening up a 25-18 lead before going on a 9-0 run that was capped by a long two-point jumper from Calhoun. Twice in the second quarter, Ohio State opened up a 17-point lead thanks to a three-pointer from Calhoun and a driving layup from Mitchell. The Wildcats would go into the half down 15 after a jumper from Reynoldsburg, Ohio native Alyssa Rice dropped in with 44 seconds remaining in the first half.
While Ohio State allowed the Wildcats to claw back into the game, it wasn't because the Buckeyes were giving the ball away. OSU committed just six turnovers, which marked a season low something McGuff said contributed to his teams success.
"We had stretches where we were really good on offense," McGuff said. "Overall, our execution was excellent today and it resulted in a bunch of good shots and low turnovers."
The Buckeyes assisted on 20 of their 33 made shots and converted at a 45.2 percent (33 of 73) clip from the floor for the game.
On the other side, Kentucky senior forward Evelyn Akhator dominated the glass against Ohio State, tearing down a program tournament record 23 rebounds to go along with 14 points. However, Ohio State's length underneath seemed to frustrate her at times as she converted on just 4 of 20 shot attempts, most of which came in the paint.
The Buckeyes are set to return to Lexington next weekend and will play the winner of the No. 1-seed Notre Dame vs. No. 9-seed Purdue matchup in the Sweet 16.