LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — After using multiple contributions to build a big lead that seemed safe, Ohio State needed a group effort to avoid an even bigger collapse against Kentucky.
Tori McCoy scored six straight points midway through the fourth quarter to help the Buckeyes withstand Kentucky’s furious rally from a 19-point second-half deficit and escape with an 82-68 second-round NCAA Tournament victory Sunday.
The fourth-seeded Wildcats trailed 50-31 early in the third but closed to 65-64 with 6:04 remaining. The fifth-seeded Buckeyes answered with eight straight points behind McCoy to lead 73-64 with 3:35 left.
“Coming down the stretch and scoring those six points was a huge thing for me,” the freshman forward said after making all six shots for 14 points along with a team-high 12 rebounds.
“I’m happy that my teammates looked for me. We made it happen. I’m just happy that we didn’t rush anything.”
Shayla Cooper scored eight of Ohio State’s final nine points and the Buckeyes (28-6) held on from there to earn their second straight Sweet 16 appearance in next week’s Lexington Regional a few blocks away at Rupp Arena.
As shaky as the Buckeyes looked while Kentucky sliced their lead, they just as quickly found their resolve on both ends to complete a balanced performance.
Kelsey Mitchell scored 21 points, with 19 coming in the first half. Cooper had 15 points and eight rebounds, and Sierra Calhoun scored 10 as Ohio State won the first postseason meeting between the schools.
Junior reserve guard Linnae Harper had perhaps the most complete line facing her former team for the first time: 12 points, 10 rebounds and a team-high 8 assists in 27 minutes. Then again, she knew the place pretty well from two years with the Wildcats.
“Just being back here on the court was a good feeling and getting a win overall was great for our team,” Harper said.
Makayla Epps had 21 points and Evelyn Akhator had 14 points with a career-high 23 rebounds in their final games for Kentucky (22-11). The Wildcats missed their final nine shots and made just 34 percent from the field while seeking their second consecutive Sweet 16 berth at home.
Said Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell, “If we could’ve played with the same kind of energy we had in the third quarter to start the game, maybe things would’ve been different.”
THE BIG PICTURE
Ohio State: The Buckeyes steadied themselves to earn another trip to Lexington. They have shot at least 45 percent in eight of the past 11 games. They also won for the 14th time in 15 games.
Kentucky: Tentative from the start with shot selection and passing, the Wildcats dug a hole they couldn’t overcome in losing just their fourth home game this season. They shot just 30 percent in the first half and finished the fourth at just 28 percent, failing on several chances to overcome a big deficit.
Mitchell jump-started Ohio State with a quick 3-pointer from the tip to set a confident tone it maintained throughout, even those moments down the stretch. That’s where the Buckeyes bench was critical, outscoring Kentucky 22-8.
“We got ourselves in the position to be as relaxed as possible and continue to run our offense,” said the guard, who shot 8 of 21 but made three 3s to become the Big Ten Conference’s career leader with 366.
“Giving it up was one of those things that needed to be done, and I think we stayed with the game plan and made sure that happened.”
Epps and Akhator were understandably emotional after their final home games at Memorial Coliseum. They acknowledged applause from a mostly blue-clad crowd and choked up several times discussing their careers.
“Even though we didn’t get the win today, we’re a team,” said Epps, who thanked Mitchell, teammates and others. “We made Memorial Coliseum rock today and I will never forget the players in the locker room.”
Epps finished as Kentucky’s No. 5 career scorer with 1,790 points.
Ohio State faces Notre Dame in Friday’s Lexington Region semifinal.
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