Interviews for the NCAA Tournament at Kentucky this week take place in the women’s basketball practice gym at the Joe Craft Center attached to Memorial Coliseum.
It must have been a bit surreal for Ohio State’s Linnae Harper, who sat down at her place on the dais, looked around and exhaled.
The guard spent hundreds of hours in this gym as a UK player for two seasons before opting to transfer.
Now the Ohio State guard is about to face her former teammates and head coach as well as her former roommate and good friend Makayla Epps.
Harper had a day to get used to being back in Memorial Coliseum, scoring two points for the Buckeyes in their tournament-opening win over Western Kentucky.
But it’s different now.
“It does change the dynamic,” said Harper, who averages 8.5 points and five rebounds off the bench for OSU. “Yesterday, we had a good game against Western Kentucky, but I think it will still be a little different playing Kentucky.”
Harper’s Ohio State teammates and coaches are trying to help her manage the emotions.
“It would be naïve to say there’s not going to be some emotion attached to it for her, coming back to a place that she formerly was,” said OSU Coach Kevin McGuff, who said he’s never had to deal with a transfer facing her former team like this. “I’ll talk to her before that, but just to say, ‘Hey, play your game.’”
Harper hasn’t had to do much studying of the scouting report. She knows the Kentucky player tendencies well after hundreds of practices together. She’s pondered what it will be like to guard people she cares about like Epps.
“I think it will be a little different, but once the game starts and we’re in between those court lines it’s business,” Harper said.
Epps had the same sort of thoughts about meeting up with her former roommate with whom she’s been texting regularly since the brackets were announced.
“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,” the UK senior said.
Kentucky’s coach said Harper “was a great kid here, and I was really sad to see her go, didn’t want her to go.
“When she came to me and said she felt like she’d be happier somewhere else, you have to allow people to chase their dreams and to go somewhere where they can find that happiness,” Matthew Mitchell said. “And I’m sorry she couldn’t find it here.”
There are no hard feelings toward the 5-foot-8 junior guard, UK’s coach continued. But he couldn’t help but have a little fun with the situation.
“I hope she has a great career and I hope she plays really, really bad tomorrow and has — along with her teammates — no success tomorrow,” Mitchell joked.
Kentucky has found creative ways to do less with more this year, including getting through most of the season playing just six players on a regular basis.
Ohio State could be a big test for the Cats’ stamina, though, with the Buckeyes using nine or 10 players, including eight different players averaging 16 or more minutes. Only one player, star Kelsey Mitchell, averages more than 25 minutes a game.
And the Buckeyes aren’t just throwing in placeholder players. They’re players who can play, Mitchell said. Seven different players average at least 7.1 points a game.
“They’re just so gifted and so talented and so deep and explosive,” UK’s coach said of Ohio State, which likes to fly up and down the floor, averaging 86.1 points a game, fourth most nationally. “They are, when you think about in terms of athleticism, I don’t know how we could have played anybody from top to bottom any more athletic.”
A bulk of Kentucky’s productivity is at the top, with four of the five starters averaging in double figures. But that doesn’t make UK any less dangerous, McGuff said.
“Matthew and his staff have done a great job with the team this year because they don’t have a lot of depth, but they’ve really managed the season and game-to-game they’ve managed it really well,” he said. “I’m very impressed with them and I know we’re going to have a tough challenge.”
Lessons from the first round
His team had just fallen to Kentucky a few minutes before, but Belmont Coach Cameron Newbauer beamed.
“Wow,” he said to open the postgame news conference. “That was fun.”
Perhaps definitions of “fun” vary from coach to coach?
“My idea of fun is maybe playing a round of golf or maybe going out and sitting on a beach for a few hours,” Mitchell said of UK barely surviving the first-round game with the Bruins, 73-70. “That was a really challenging game yesterday.”
But the coach and UK’s players might find some fun in that opener if they can use it to help them top Ohio State (27-6).
“In the past, our first-round games were kind of blowouts and we just cruised through, but that tough game against Belmont early is going to help us in tomorrow’s game against Ohio State,” Epps said of facing an OSU team seeded lower than UK but ranked higher (No. 11 versus No. 18) in the final Associated Press poll of the season.
“If we come out with a sharper mental focus, keep our composure, and communicate with each other better on defense we’ll be in better shape tomorrow against Ohio State.”
In hindsight, the game against Belmont might be just what Kentucky needed, Mitchell said.
“To see what will happen if you’re not locked in, tuned in, focused and hustling,” he said of what he saw at times against Belmont. “I think that was a great, great game to be in.”
Hitting close to home
Alyssa Rice can’t hide a smile when asked about her rooting interest as a kid.
“I grew up in Ohio and lived there most of my life,” said the Kentucky forward, who went to high school about 20 minutes from campus. “I was a typical Ohio State fan.”
She’s got plenty of connections to the Buckeyes, who offered her out of Reynoldsburg High School before she opted to go to UK instead. Rice played on the same AAU team as Ohio State’s Makayla Waterman and she faced (and lost to) Buckeyes’ star Kelsey Mitchell in high school.
“She’s a tough player, a very strong, aggressive player,” Rice said of Mitchell, who averages 22.8 points, 2.8 rebounds and 3.9 assists a game. “She’s definitely a really good person and player as well.”