It wasn't pretty, but the Buckeyes downed No. 12 seed Western Kentucky 70-63 on Friday, advancing to the round of 32 where they will meet No. 4 seed Kentucky at 12:05 p.m.
The win was about as uncharacteristic as it gets for Ohio State. The nation's fourth highest-scoring team couldn't find consistent offense and the Big Ten's leading scorer had an off game, scoring just four points in the first half and 15 on the game.
Instead, the Buckeyes won with stifling defense and play from their bench players. Ohio State held the normally hot-shooting Hilltoppers to just 63 points and 29 percent from the field. Meanwhile, Asia Doss and Shayla Cooper came off the bench and delivered season-high performances. Doss led the team with 15 points and Cooper pulled down a game-high 15 rebounds, helping fill the void left by the injured Stephanie Mavunga.
It undoubtably wasn't how Ohio State wanted to open NCAA Tournament play, but it should leave the team optimistic about its chances going forward. The Buckeyes proved that when the game doesn't go their way, shots don't fall and they don't get the usual production from their star, they can still win a game.
Ohio State survived, and faces a new task in No. 4 seed Kentucky on Sunday afternoon. The Buckeyes will look to top the Wildcats and advance to their second-straight Sweet 16.
Kentucky may be the higher seed, but Ohio State comes into Sunday's matchup with a better record and a higher ranking in the polls. The Wildcats have 10 losses to the Buckeyes' six and were ranked No. 18 in the final regular-season AP Poll while Ohio State was ranked No. 11.
Still, Kentucky is a dangerous team. The Wildcats are ranked No. 14 in the RPI rankings while the Buckeyes rank just No. 27. Kentucky has been tested all year with a much more difficult schedule and will be a tough out on its home court.
The Wildcats are led by two seniors: Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator. The pair is responsible for nearly half the team's scoring and rebounding this season and combined for 52 of Kentucky's 73 points in its first-round win against Belmont.
If the Buckeyes can limit Epps and Akhator, or get them in foul trouble, the Wildcats may be in trouble as they aren't terribly deep. Only six players on the roster average more than 13 minutes a game and 80 percent of the team's scoring comes from four players.
Scouting Ohio State
The Buckeyes enter Sunday's matchup coming off back-to-back poor offensive performances. Following the rule of averages, I wouldn't bank on that happening a third time with how high-scoring this team has been all season. At some point, shots will fall.
Ohio State is waiting for one player in particular to play up to her potential, at least offensively. Kelsey Mitchell is scoring 22.8 points per game on the season but has averaged just 12 points over the last two games. She's a volume and rhythm shooter, so if she can catch fire, it could doom Kentucky.
With a win against Western Kentucky, however, the Buckeyes proved they can win even if Mitchell is not at her best. If Mitchell comes out flat again, look for players like Shayla Cooper, Sierra Calhoun and Kiara Lewis to pick up the slack.
The biggest storyline heading into the game is whether Stephanie Mavunga will play after she missed her seventh-straight game with a foot injury on Friday after being declared a game-time decision. Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff said she will again be a game-time decision Sunday. If she does play, it's difficult to imagine she'll play heavy minutes. Tori McCoy and Alexa Hart will likely have to hold down the post for one more game.
Another point of interest is that Ohio State guard Linnae Harper will meet her former team. Harper transferred from Kentucky midway through last season and became eligible for the Buckeyes in December. Since then, she's provided a valuable spark for Ohio State off the bench, quietly averaging 8.2 points per game and pulling down almost five boards a game despite standing only 5-8.
How it Plays Out
Kentucky is a solid team with two exceptional players that's been tested all season, but Ohio State has one decisive advantage: depth.
While the Wildcats have only six players who average more than 13 minutes a game, the Buckeyes have ten. That coupled with the pace at which Ohio State likes to play, it's likely Kentucky will tire well before the Buckeyes do.
If Ohio State can force an uptempo game like it tends to do, the Wildcats will have a difficult time keeping up with the Buckeyes on the court and on the scoreboard.
Kevin's Prediction: Ohio State 84 Kentucky 70
How to Watch
The game will take place in Lexington, Kentucky on Sunday at 12:05 p.m. and will be broadcast on ESPN2 as well as streamed on ESPN3 and the WatchESPN App.