As soon as the Ohio State bus got off the ramp at Newtown Pike, it hit Linnae Harper.
“It’s an exciting feeling,” said the former Kentucky guard for two seasons, now a Buckeye. “It’s so weird, coming off the expressway, I knew exactly where I was. Passing the dorms, it was like, ‘Man, I used to live there.’ It’s a weird feeling, but it’s great to be back.”
It’s a strange set of circumstances for three ex-Cats who transferred out (two in 2016 and one the season before) and will now meet in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Memorial Coliseum on Friday afternoon.
“We had a group message about how it’s crazy how we’re all back where we started together, but this time it’s all against each other,” said Kyvin Goodin-Rogers, a former UK forward who is now playing for No. 12 seed Western Kentucky, which will face No. 5 seed Ohio State in the second game. The Cats battle Belmont in the opener.
The winner of the first game could very well face her former team in her former home gym on Sunday in the second round.
“It’s going to be a battle, but it’s going to be fun at the same time,” said Goodin-Rogers, who was one of many UK players to part ways with the Cats last season. Her Toppers teammate, Jaycee Coe, also was at Kentucky for a season before leaving in 2015.
On Selection Monday, as soon as WKU and Ohio State showed up on the bracket in Lexington, Harper, Goodin-Rogers and former UK teammates Makayla Epps all started a group text that has continued all week.
“We’re ecstatic to see each other, but once we get on the court it’s all business,” said Harper, who played in 69 games for UK averaging 9.2 points and 4.9 rebounds. “I’m excited to see them. My best friends. It’s gonna be good.”
Both Harper and Goodin-Rogers, who said they were happy with their new teams, hoped a familiarity with Memorial Coliseum would help them with any early NCAA Tournament jitters.
After it was announced that WKU would be headed to Lexington this week, Toppers Coach Michelle Clark-Heard said she met individually with Coe and Goodin-Rogers to see how they were.
“They are mature young ladies and I think they know and understand this situation,” the coach said. “It is just another game for them. They want to win and want to figure out how to be in a position where they can help us win. I think they have embraced their time they had here and are embracing their time they are having at WKU.”
Kentucky’s focus is exclusively on Belmont, not on who is returning to campus.
“That’s really where I have to be right now as their leader,” UK Coach Matthew Mitchell said. “Everything right now is on trying to see if we can find a way to prepare, be ready, and defeat an outstanding Belmont team.”
‘Chuck it from the cheap seats’
Only a coach born and raised in Indiana can use the line and not seem cheesy using it.
“I love the movie ‘Hoosiers,’” Belmont Coach Cameron Newbauer said. “There’s a line that we’ve taken from the movie that we like to use a lot. We like to ‘chuck it from the cheap seats.’ If we’re open and our players feel good about it, then we can take it.”
Indeed they do.
Kentucky’s opponent will test the Cats’ three-point defense in a big way. The Bruins are top 30 nationally in three-pointers made (272), threes made per game (8.5) and three-pointers attempted (734).
Seven games into the season, every player on Belmont’s team had made a three-pointer. Two players, Kylee Smith and Darby Maggard, have made 72 or more of them this season.
By contrast, no UK player has even made 50.
“Coach told us that this is one of the deadliest three-point shooting teams that we’ve seen,” UK’s Makayla Epps said. “I thought Missouri was pretty hot, and their offense is better than Missouri. So, you’ve got to respect them for what they’ve done.”
Maggard, a 5-foot-5 sophomore guard also from Indiana, is the only player in Division I who is top five in both three-pointers made (second at 111) and three-point percentage (second at 49.1 percent).
“It’s something that I’ve done all my life and it’s something that we do as a team every single day,” Maggard said. “In practice, we shoot a lot of threes and it’s just a part of our offense. So, it’s Coach Cam pretty much.”
The team doesn’t just sprint and shoot, though. They try to build offense from inside out, Smith said.
“All year we have done really well sharing the ball,” the forward said. “Someone might have a good shot but we want the great shot, so we make the extra pass.”
Kentucky is among the worst three-point shooting defense teams in the Southeastern Conference (and 298th nationally), allowing opponents to shoot 34 percent from the field. Missouri and Oklahoma both made 11 threes against the Cats this season.
Belmont, with its 21-game win streak and 13 road wins this season, has Mitchell’s attention.
“They are an explosive offensive team,” he said. “When you average 80 points per game, that is impressive. They can score. They are lethal behind the three-point line. It’s incredible to see.”
(Common)Wealth of talent
Some of the state’s elite high school players for the past few years will be together in Memorial Coliseum on Friday, including undefeated 2013 Sweet Sixteen champions from Marion County in Goodin-Rogers (WKU) and Epps (UK).
“It’s pretty cool having a chance to stay in Kentucky and having a chance to play against some of the top teams, maybe Makayla,” Goodin-Rogers said.
Combined, WKU and Kentucky have 14 players from the Commonwealth, eight for the Toppers and six for the Cats.
Even the benches have some in-state talent with Western head coach Clark-Heard (Atherton) and UK assistant Kyra Elzy (Oldham County) both in numerous state halls of fame.
There are three former Kentucky Miss Basketballs who will play Friday, including Epps (2013) and Maci Morris (2015) for Kentucky and WKU’s Ivy Brown (2014).
Another big name is WKU freshman Whitney Creech, a former Jenkins star who holds the state scoring record with 5,527 career points.
In-state players for UK include Epps and Morris (Bell County) as well as Shae Halsel (Warren Central), Rachel Potter (Pikeville), Jessica Hardin (Wayne County) and Makenzie Cann (Anderson County).
Western’s include Goodin-Rogers, Brown (LaRue County) and Creech as well as Malaka Frank (Franklin County), Dee Givens (Lafayette), Micah Jones (Green County), Kendall Noble (Perry County Central) and Sarah Price (Bath County).
Slamming on the brakes
Western Kentucky will have to try and stop one of the nation’s elite offenses in Ohio State and one of the country’s elite scorers in Kelsey Mitchell.
The Buckeyes average 86.6 points a game, good enough for fourth nationally, led by Mitchell’s 23 points (seventh overall).
The WKU coach made it clear the goal will be to slow down Ohio State, not play a game where the first one to 90 points wins.
That will mean more than just stopping Mitchell, Clark-Heard said.
“Everybody speaks about Kelsey, and Kelsey is incredible, can score and do a lot of things, but you look across the board — they have a ton of players that can score and do a lot of things,” Clark-Heard said. “The way they press and get up and down the floor — they can score multiple points in a very short time. We’re going to have to be focused on that.”
Probable starters: Maci Morris, 6-0, G, So. (11.7 pts, 2.8 rebs, 1.5 asts); Evelyn Akhator, 6-3, F, Sr. (15.8 pts, 10.5 rebs, 24 blks); Taylor Murray, 5-6, G, So. (12.7 pts, 5.0 rebs, 3.8 asts); Makayla Epps, 5-10, G, Sr. (17.2 pts, 3.6 asts, 32 stls); Makenzie Cann, 6-1, G, Jr. (5.9 pts, 3.5 rebs)
Key reserves: Alyssa Rice, 6-3, C, Jr. (4.2 pts, 4.5 rebs); Jessica Hardin, 5-8, G, Sr. (3.1 pts, 1.3 rebs); Jaida Roper, 5-6, PG, Fr. (2.8 pts, 1.2 asts)
Probable starters: Lauren Thompson, 6-1, F, Sr. (10.3 pts, 5.4 rebs); Kylee Smith, 5-11, F, Jr. (15.7 pts, 5.1 rebs, 3.3 asts); Jenny Roy, 5-11, F, So. (8.5 pts, 6.9 rebs, 2.8 asts); Darby Maggard, 5-5, G, So. (14.4 pts, 5.8 asts); Sally McCabe, 6-3, C, Sr. (12.4 pts, 7.8 rebs, 91 blks)
Key reserves: Frankie Joubran, 6-1, F, Sr. (3.7 pts, 5.2 rebs); Sierra Jones, 5-9, G, Jr. (4.6 pts, 2.3 rebs), Paris Lawson, 5-9, G, Fr. (2.4 pts), Maddie Wright, 6-1, F, Fr. (3.8 pts, 2.8 rebs)
Western Kentucky (27-6)
Probable starters: Kendall Noble, 5-11, G, Sr. (16.1 pts, 6.2 rebs, 5.2 asts); Tashia Brown, 6-1, F, Jr. (13.4 pts, 4.1 rebs, 1.5 asts); Ivy Brown, 6-1, F, Jr. (13.3 pts, 8.2 rebs, 41 blks); Kyvin Goodin-Rogers, 6-2, F, Jr. (8.0pts, 3.9 rebs); Micah Jones, 5-8, G, Sr. (6.9 pts, 4.1 asts)
Key reserves: Sidnee Bopp, 5-6, G, So. (4.1 pts); Ima Akpan, 5-10, G, Sr. (2.8 pts, 2.8 rebs); Kayla Smith, 5-11, G/F, So. (4.0 pts, 1.2 rebs); Jaycee Coe, 5-11, G, So. (5.2 pts); Dee Givens, 6-1, F, So. (4.4 pts, 1.6 rebs)
Ohio State (26-6)
Probable starters: Kelsey Mitchell, 5-8, G, Jr. (23.0 pts, 4.0 asts, 2.8 rebs); Tori McCoy, 6-4, F, Fr. (7.8 pts, 4.9 rebs); Sierra Calhoun, 6-0, G, So. (9.7 pts, 3.5 rebs); Kiara Lewis, 5-8, G, Fr. (7.1 pts, 1.6 rebs); Shayla Cooper, 6-2, F, Sr. (10.5 pts, 6.3 rebs)
Key reserves: Linnae Harper, 5-8, G, Jr. (8.5 pts, 5.0 rebs); Asia Doss, 5-7, G, Jr. (5.4 pts, 2.2 rebs); Alexa Hart, 6-3, F, Jr. (4.6 pts, 4.0 rebs); Makayla Waterman, 6-2, F, So. (3.3 pts, 3.2 rebs)