By Kindsey Bernhard
UK Hoops second-half rally fell short in an 82-68 loss to Ohio State in the second-round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday afternoon in Memorial Coliseum.
The fifth-seeded Buckeyes led by 17 points with four and half minutes left in the second quarter. When most people thought the game was over, UK Hoops had a different idea.
With a little more than six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, had cut the Buckeyes’ lead to a single point. Ohio State responded with an 8-0 run and ended up winning by 14. During OSU’s run the Cats couldn’t hit a shot and went scoreless for two and half minutes, going 0-of-4 from the field.
UK’s only points in the final six minutes of the game were four free throws from Evelyn Akhator and Alyssa Rica. The Cats missed their final nine shots of the game.
One reason the Cats found themselves in a deep hole was Kelsey Mitchell, a major problem for the Wildcats’ defense in the first half. Mitchell finished with 21 points, 19 of them in the first half.
“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,” Ohio State head 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.”
Mitchell had one point in the first quarter against Western Kentucky on Friday, going 0-of-0 from the field.
“We tried to start the game bothering her and trapping her,” head coach Matthew Mitchell said on his team’s game plan on Kelsey Mitchell. “I don’t know if we were able to get better and adjust a little bit. She’s so explosive. Some of those shots she made are hard shots. A lot of times, you try to figure out what’s wrong with you and you don’t give the other team enough credit. She just did a really good job.”
After cutting the deficit to 15 at the half, Makayla Epps scored UK’s first six points of the third quarter with a 6-0 run, while UK’s defense kept OSU scoreless for two minutes.
Epps did everything to try to ensure she was not playing her last game in a Kentucky uniform, but her 21 points were not enough to get her team into the next round. In her 40 minutes of play she went 10-of-23 from the field and 0-of-3 from three-point range.
“Coach told us that we could come back so we weren’t in the locker room defeated. We might have been a little deflated, but we were never defeated going into the break,” Epps said. “We were just trying to attack them in transition; it’s a really big part of our game. Then I started getting to the rim a couple of times, everything started opening up for the perimeter players and on the inside. Then when we got within one I was saying ‘keep attacking’.”
With two and half minutes left in the second quarter, Maci Morris hit a three-pointer to cut the lead to single digits for the first time since the first quarter. Makenzie Cann followed with two made free throws, giving Ohio State a 59-52 lead.
Akhator, who has shot 69 percent from the free throw line, missed two critical free throws in the final minute of the third quarter. Akhator recorded her eighteenth double of the season with 14 points and a career-high 23 rebounds.
“If I can’t score offensively I can’t let that affect my game. I have to keep rebounding and looking for players like Makayla,” Akhator said on her career-high rebounds. “I was just going for the rebound because they were bigger players and if I don’t go for rebounds or if my teammates do go then we don’t win. I just have to keep pushing offensively. One of the scouting reports said that they don’t rebound, they don’t box out, and we just tried to used that to our advantage.”
“We did not have a lot of pep in our step,” Mitchell said on his team’s first half performance. “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.”
UK finishes its season with a 22-12 overall record. The Cats will lose senior starters Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator, but starters Taylor Murray, Maci Morris and Alyssa Rice will return for the Cats next season.
“I’m so grateful for those two because they’ve taught me as much of anything that I’ve taught them,” Mitchel said on Epps and Akhator. “They gave me, and all of us here who have worked hard to build a good program that has integrity and develops people and isn’t just about winning games.”
Kindsey Bernhard is a journalism senior at the University of Kentucky. She is from Ft. Wright and played high school basketball at Notre Dame Academy.