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Seniors Epps, Akhator come to end of the line as Cats fall to Buckeyes in NCAA tournament

Fourth-seeded Kentucky rallied from a 19-point second half deficit to within one point of the lead, but the Wildcats could not overcome fifth-seeded Ohio State’s advantage, as the Buckeyes won 82-68 on Sunday afternoon at Memorial Coliseum.

It was a 33-15 run over 13 minutes that allowed Kentucky to methodically cut into the Ohio State lead. But Ohio State ended the game on a 17-4 run to put it away.

Kentucky (22-11) was led by its seniors, as both Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator, who had big games as they played their final game at home. Epps scored 21 points and had four assists, while Akhator had 14 points and a career-high 23 rebounds. Only twice in the history of Kentucky women’s basketball has a player had more than 23 rebounds (Valerie Still had games of 27 and 26 rebounds).

It was a 33-15 run over 13 minutes that allowed Kentucky to methodically cut into the Ohio State lead. But Ohio State ended the game on a 17-4 run to put it away. (UK Athletics Photo)

“Give credit to Ohio State,”said UK head coach Matthew Mitchell. “They played hard and are a great team. We dug ourselves in a big hole and fought hard to get out of it. 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.

“I’m proud of our two seniors. They battled through real adversity since the end of last season to spearhead an effort to create a true team. That’s what we were. We were a group of flawed individuals that came together. Our sum ended being greater than our parts.  That’s a testament to these young women. 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. We’re sad today, but we’ll hold our heads high, knowing that we accomplished what every university that has a program – I think you would want to have a team at the end of it.”

Maci Morris had 12 points for Kentucky, while Taylor Murray had seven points, five assists and four rebounds.

The Wildcats struggled shooting in the game, hitting just 25-of-73 (34.2 percent) from the floor and only three-of-17 (17.6 percent) from behind the arc. Ohio State hit 33 of its 73 shots (45.2 percent), including six of its 23 three-point attempts (26.1 percent).

Kentucky won the rebounding battle 50-43, but the Wildcats had twice as many turnovers as Ohio State (12-6). The Buckeyes had 22 points off of their bench, while Kentucky managed just eight.

Ohio State grabbed an early 7-2 lead, and eventually led 12-6. Kelsey Mitchell had 10 of the Buckeyes’ first 12 points, while Akhator scored the first six for Kentucky. Ohio State would increase its lead to 16-8, forcing Kentucky to take a timeout. The Wildcats responded, scoring the next six points to cut the deficit to just two, 16-14. Ohio State responded by scoring the next four, and the Buckeyes led after the first quarter 20-16. Kentucky struggled from the floor, hitting just six-of-17, including missing all five attempts from behind the arc.

In the second quarter, Ohio State started quickly once again, this time with a 14-2 run to take a 34-18 advantage. The lead grew to as many as 17, and the Buckeyes would have a 46-31 lead at the half. Epps had nine points to lead Kentucky in the first half, while Akhator had 13 rebounds at the break.

Ohio State increased the lead to 19 at 50-31 before Epps went on a personal 6-0 run to make it 50-37, forcing the Buckeyes to call timeout. The Wildcats continued to cut into the Ohio State lead, getting within seven, 59-52. Kentucky would trail 61-53 after three quarters, despite Akhator’s 12 points and 20 rebounds in the game’s first 30 minutes.

Kentucky came out firing in the fourth quarter, with Epps scoring on a drive to the basket and Morris nailing a three from the top of the key to cut the lead to 61-58 with 8:55 remaining. The Wildcats would get within one, 65-64, on an Epps jumper with 6:04 left in the game. But Ohio State answered with an 8-0 run to build the lead back to nine.

“Well, I’ve said this before. I’m so grateful for those two because they’ve taught me as much of anything that I’ve taught them,” Mitchell said of his seniors. 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. We also develop people. It looked very unusual last spring.

“To go through all of that and hear those two talk about their experience, it lets you know what Kentucky is about. And what all of us are about. They didn’t just mention me. They mentioned their teammates and what kind of young women they are. No advancement in this tournament, no trophy we could’ve won can replace the gift that they gave me, which is that honesty, hard work, and discipline still work. Being in a program where the expectation for you is to be coachable, accountable, resilient still works. Those two will take those things with them when they leave.”

Ohio State (28-6) was led by Mitchell’s 21 points.

From UK Athletics

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