Kentucky and Ohio State prepare for first-time NCAA matchup
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) -- Ohio State's slim series advantage over Kentucky means nothing with more than 10 years having passed since the schools last played and none occurring in the postseason.
All of which makes Sunday's inaugural NCAA Tournament matchup very intriguing.
A second straight Sweet 16 berth is stake for fifth-seeded Ohio State and No. 4 seed Kentucky (22-10), which for the host Wildcats could mean another home game a few blocks away at Rupp Arena. Both schools will rely heavily on veterans to make it happen, and Buckeyes junior guard Linnae Harper could play a key role in the series' newest chapter.
After all, she has a history with Kentucky.
"It is strange, once being on that scout (report) and now I'm on the opposite end," said Harper, who played two years with the Wildcats before transferring last season. "Then again, it's just business and have to just focus as a team and look to the coaches for what the game plan is."
Harper was among nearly half the roster that left Kentucky over the course of the 2015-16 season, a mass exodus that included three assistant coaches. With her went 11.4 points and 7.1 boards per game, the latter of which would have made her Kentucky's top returning rebounder.
Harper has gone on to become the Big Ten Conference Sixth Player of the Year and enters the second-round game averaging 8.2 points and 4.9 rebounds.
Kentucky has moved on from the departures thanks to senior forward Evelyn Akhator (16 points, 10.5 rebounds) ultimately taking charge on the glass. But Harper and former teammates recall their time together fondly and have exchanged texts since the Lexington Region bracket was announced.
And the Wildcats still marvel at the 5-foot-8 guard's knack for getting rebounds.
"She can really, really jump, has incredible timing, has great strength, a really quick jumper off the floor," Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said Saturday. "It's unusual to see someone her height be able to do what she can do, but she can really rebound the ball."
Kentucky has other Ohio State veterans to stop such as junior guard Kelsey Mitchell, the Big Ten's Player of the Year who had 15 points in Friday's 70-63 victory over Western Kentucky. Senior forward Shayla Cooper had a season-high 15 rebounds in the win.
Kentucky's veterans present a challenge as well after they helped the Wildcats escape No. 13 seed Belmont 73-70.
Guard Makayla Epps made a career-best five 3-pointers for her second consecutive 30-point game. Akhator added 22 points and 10 rebounds for her 17th double-double and Maci Morris (15 points) made seven of eight free throws down the stretch to seal a hard-fought win that Kentucky appreciated as a prelude to another hurdle.
"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," Epps said.
Other things to watch in Sunday's second-round game:
STATUS QUO: Matthew Mitchell and Ohio State counterpart Kevin McGuff concede the 48-hour turnaround between games makes preparation challenging, especially for a team neither has seen. To that end, they agreed the focus is reinforcing what their teams do best. Said McGuff, "What it comes down to is that we kind of have to be the best version of ourselves and really focus to make sure we're doing the things that make us special."
INJURY UPDATE: McGuff said junior forward Stephanie Mavunga (foot) was progressing and expected her to practice on Saturday, but called her availability a game-time decision. She has missed the past seven games.
TIGHT SERIES: Ohio State has won 13 of the 22 meetings between the teams.