Kentucky made the long trip back from 19 points down, but Ohio State kept the Cats from reaching their desired destination: Rupp Arena.
Instead, UK’s season ended in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in an 82-68 loss to Ohio State, which moves on in the Lexington Regional.
“We dug ourselves a big hole and fought hard to get out of it,” Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell said. “We weren’t able to make it all the way back, but I’m really proud of their effort. It’s been a special experience coaching them.”
Behind huge performances from its seniors, Kentucky, which never led on Sunday in Memorial Coliseum, nearly came back from 19 points down against the Buckeyes.
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After a huge surge in the third quarter, the Cats (22-11) got within one point, 65-64 with 6:04 to play, on a baseline jumper from senior Makayla Epps.
“When we got within one I was saying ‘keep attacking,’” said Epps, who had 21 points and four assists. “Then we had a couple breakdowns.”
Ohio State helped with that, holding the Cats without a field goal the final six minutes of the game. Kentucky missed its final nine shots.
“I never thought the team was out of it,” Epps said. “Everyone kept their mentality about them, nobody got down mentally even though we got down big early.”
That big hole came courtesy of Kelsey Mitchell, who scored 10 of the Buckeyes’ first 12 points and finished with 21 points and four rebounds. She helped Ohio State (28-6) get off to a blazing start.
It started with a little encouragement from her coach.
“Kelsey didn’t have her best game against Western Kentucky so the last thing I told her was to remember that she was the best player on the court; so she was ready and got us off to a great start,” Coach Kevin McGuff said.
“Our kids were just really fired up, and we knew we had a big challenge in front of us against a great Kentucky team on their home floor, so our kids were really focused and motivated to play well today.”
I never thought the team was out of it. Everyone kept their mentality about them, nobody got down mentally even though we got down big early.
Mitchell was one of five Ohio State players in double figures, including Shayla Cooper, who added 15 points and eight rebounds. Freshman Tori McCoy had 14 points, 12 rebounds and four blocked shots.
The Buckeyes finished with 10 blocked shots, many coming in the final six minutes when Kentucky was trying to complete its comeback but came up short.
“We took good shots, but they just weren’t falling for us,” Kentucky sophomore Taylor Murray said. “Can’t keep our head down, because we played a good game and made a run for ourselves.”
Midway through the first half, it looked like no run would come.
The second quarter couldn’t have gone much worse for Kentucky, which missed eight of its first nine shot attempts. It was off to the races for the Buckeyes, who went on a 17-4 run that ultimately put the game out of reach.
“We did not have a lot of pep in our step,” UK’s Mitchell said of the early problems. “If we could’ve played with the same kind of energy that we had in the third quarter to start the game, then maybe things would’ve been different.”
Former Kentucky guard Linnae Harper, who transferred to Ohio State, was a big reason for their success, especially early when the Buckeyes were running away with it.
Harper had a near triple-double with 12 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.
We did not have a lot of pep in our step (in the first half). If we could’ve played with the same kind of energy that we had in the third quarter to start the game, then maybe things would’ve been different.
The Cats shot 25 percent in the second quarter and were behind 46-31 at the half, but Epps said the team never felt like it was over.
“We weren’t in the locker room defeated —we might have been a little deflated — but we were never defeated going into the break,” the senior said.
Epps scored six straight to key the big run. A few minutes later, a big Maci Morris three-pointer got the game to single digits. The sophomore, who finished with 12 points, nailed another big three to cap a 13-2 run that helped cut it to three points.
Evelyn Akhator played a big part in the rebound, too, with some timely rebounds, 23 in all, a career record and NCAA Tournament mark for a Kentucky player. The senior had 14 points, 23 rebounds and four blocks in her final game at UK.
After Epps’ baseline jumper got the Cats to within one point, though, Ohio State got huge play from McCoy, including six of their eight straight points to extend the lead again.
The freshman post player was one of many answers the Buckeyes found in the final minutes.
“Our depth was a big part of the game today,” McGuff said of his bench, which outscored UK’s 22-8. “Ultimately, down the stretch, I think that we were a little more fresh than they were because of our depth.”
With just a few seconds to play, Mitchell pulled Epps and Akhator, who got one final long, loud ovation at home, where their careers would end along with Kentucky’s season.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever been prouder to be the coach at Kentucky to have had the honor of coaching this group,” UK’s coach said afterward. “We’re sad today, but we’ll hold our heads high.”
What: NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 and Elite Eight
When: Friday and Sunday
Where: Rupp Arena
Friday’s matchups: Ohio State vs. Notre Dame-Purdue winner; North Carolina State-Texas winner vs. Kansas State-Stanford winner