LEXINGTON, Ky. -- It's just a couple of blocks from Memorial Coliseum, site of the first two rounds of NCAA tournament games in this part of the Bluegrass State, to Rupp Arena, the larger downtown arena that is host to next week's regional.
At this rate, someone better set up the kind of water stations more familiar to marathons along the route. This is not going to be an easy amble for the host.
A year after it won its first-round game by 54 points in the same building, fourth-seeded Kentucky sweated, worried and hung on through a 73-70 win against No. 13 Belmont. The upset-minded Ohio Valley Conference champion led at halftime and was within a point in the final minute. But a combined 52 points from Makayla Epps and Evelyn Akhator saved the host.
More to follow from Lexington, but here is the view at the final buzzer.
Player of the game: Take your pick of two Kentucky seniors who otherwise would have played their final game Friday. But Epps, as she so often seems to in games like this, rose to the occasion. She hit a 3-pointer on the first possession of the game and had three 3-pointers inside of 15 minutes -- that from a player who hadn't hit more than two 3-pointers in a game all season. The shooting numbers (11-of-18) don't tell the story of how hard she had to work for her 30 points, cradling the ball, twisting and turning to find enough space.
Turning point: It was the corner of Memorial Coliseum clad in Belmont red that made noise as the teams exited the court at halftime, but Kentucky kept them in their seats for a long time when play resumed. Belmont didn't score its first points of the second half until more than six minutes had elapsed. Kentucky, meanwhile, ran off 13 unanswered points to reclaim the lead for good. Belmont fought its way back after that run, just as it did after Kentucky jumped to a double-digit lead in the first quarter. Belmont had the ball and a chance to tie in the final seconds. But the mountain ultimately was a bit too much to climb.
How it was won: Kentucky was very good collectively for about the first five minutes of each half, taking away the kind of looks that feed Belmont's offense, both from the 3-point line and on second-chance opportunities. And Epps and Akhator, well, they were very good the whole time.
Ultimately, the Wildcats simply ran out the clock. Eschewing 3-pointers for easier looks inside in the final minute, Belmont kept sending Kentucky to the free throw line in the final minute in hopes of trading two points for one or none. It didn't work, and Belmont's hopes disappeared when Darby Maggard's potential tying 3-pointer at the buzzer hit the rim.
X factor: Epps and Akhator did almost all the scoring for Kentucky, but Maci Morris hit one of the bigger shots of the afternoon. After the Wildcats retained possession on a jump ball and got an offensive rebound on an Epps miss, Morris' 3-pointer provided a 62-55 lead with about five minutes to play, stretching the game from one or two possessions toward greater safety. And once Belmont fought back from that deficit, Morris also hit seven free throws in the final minute.
Stat of the game: Kentucky entered with the nation's 298th-best 3-point field goal defense and played about to its averages. But a team that didn't make much use of the 3-pointer itself during the season made 7 of 15 attempts. Those extra points certainly proved useful.
Give it a single-digit seed: Belmont trailed Michigan State by just five points entering the fourth quarter of a first-round game a year ago. It scared the heck out of Kentucky on its own court. And it returns most of the key figures, including multiskilled post Sally McCabbe, point guard Maggard and scorer Kylee Smith. Hopefully the selection committee remembers this when it comes to seedings a year from now. It should be part of what is becoming an impressive résumé.
What's next: Kentucky will face the winner of Friday's second game between No. 5 Ohio State and No. 12 Western Kentucky. Though few miles separate them, Kentucky and Ohio State have played just once since 1998, an Ohio State win in 2007 at home in Columbus. While that means the Wildcats haven't faced Ohio State All-American Kelsey Mitchell, another prolific scorer, Washington's Kelsey Plum, helped knock them out of the NCAA tournament a year ago.
A meeting with Western Kentucky would offer its own drama beyond the obvious geography. Western Kentucky's Jaycee Cox and Kyvin Goodin-Rogers are two of the more than half a dozen players who left Kentucky with eligibility remaining in the past couple of years. The two schools last played in 2008, a Western Kentucky win (they first played in the 1922-23 season).