NCAA
Graham Hays, espnW.com 249d

Kentucky, Ohio State advance -- but Belmont leaves last impression

Women's College Basketball, Kentucky Wildcats, Belmont University Bruins, Western Kentucky Lady Toppers, Ohio State Buckeyes

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- While libraries the world over might prove that history is indeed written by those who win, their stories are often worth telling only because of those who lose.

So let's give the first words of this history not to No. 4 seed Kentucky or No. 5 Ohio State, the two teams that won NCAA tournament first-round games Friday in Memorial Coliseum. Let's start instead with No. 13 Belmont's Darby Maggard, a sophomore generously listed at 5-foot-4 who had the ball in her hands with a chance to tie the score against Kentucky in the final seconds of regulation.

"Kentucky is a great defensive team," Maggard said of the play out of a timeout that found her double-teamed. "That's where they make their money, is getting up on people and being able to force you into tough shots. They switched the last possession, and [Makenzie Cann], she was out on me. When I turned, she was right there. So I had to pivot and try and find some space to get the ball up in the air.

"That's a testament to their defense."

One of the most accurate 3-point shooters in the country, a player who had just escaped the clutches of that defense and shown off nearly unlimited range to hit her fifth 3-pointer of the game, Maggard found enough daylight on the final play for an off-balance shot. It hit the far side of the rim and bounded away, and with it Belmont's chances of becoming just the seventh No. 13 seed to win a game in the tournament.

Kentucky held on for a 73-70 win on its home court.

"Next one is going down," said an undaunted Maggard afterward.

Survive and advance? It seemed more like the team that lived the most is among those going home.

So on Sunday, the stage is set in Lexington for Kentucky to host Ohio State in an anticipated showdown of regional powers that rarely meet on the court. Kentucky's Makayla Epps and Ohio State's Kelsey Mitchell, two stars who helped shape the balance of power in women's basketball when they stayed close to home, take the court knowing only one can reach the Sweet 16.

But while each took the necessary step Friday toward the tournament's second week, neither was the story of her team's win.

Kentucky jumped to a 23-13 lead after the first quarter. Belmont, with talented post presence Sally McCabe restricted by an early foul, could do little to stop Evelyn Akhator inside. And the 3-point looks that sustained the Bruins' offense all season were difficult to find against SEC athleticism. But then, as if expecting its opponent to accept the inevitable, Kentucky gave an inch and Belmont took a mile.

Bruins forward Kylee Smith, a transfer from Vanderbilt, scored 18 first-half points. McCabe found her footing. The 3s started to fall. Belmont, which swept through the Ohio Valley Conference undefeated and brought a boisterous if outnumbered rooting section to the coliseum, led by a point at halftime.

All of which left Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell to deliver a message during the break that he said was short on fire and brimstone but was pointed all the same.

"This year with this team, we've tried to improve our communication," said Mitchell, who expected some rust after a week off after the SEC tournament. "So we were very matter of fact and just so displeased with the second quarter. ... It's happened a couple of times this year, but we just really got down and dejected and stopped hustling.

"And I just didn't understand why that was happening. I didn't have a lot that I could tell them. I couldn't help them a lot schematically or strategically until we got that fixed."

The Wildcats responded, none more than Maci Morris, the victim of many of Smith's spinning, Euro-stepping, relentless forays in the second quarter. But it was too late to make things easy. Kentucky took the lead, pushing it to seven points in the fourth quarter, but Belmont twice trimmed it to a single point.

In the end, it still was strategy or schemes that won the day as much as it was Epps doing something out of the ordinary. Belmont coach Cameron Newbauer said he wanted his team to give Epps the 3-point line, at least in relation to giving her room to drive inside it. Epps hadn't hit more than two 3-pointers in a game all season. She hit five Friday.

Those three extra points made a big difference.

"It's just funny how the game works out," Epps said. "You never know what you're going to be out there doing. The shots were open, I felt good, my feet were set. Even the ones I missed, they felt good."

As for Ohio State, effort wasn't as much of an issue as pace and execution in a 70-63 win against No. 12 Western Kentucky in the second game. With Kelsey Mitchell held in check by a variety of defensive looks, Ohio State simply out-suffocated its opponent. The defense forced enough turnovers in the first half to build a small lead and took away the looks needed to build a rally in the second half. In spurts, Asia Doss, Shayla Cooper, Alexa Hart and Tori McCoy all stepped up for Ohio State.

Yet even there, it felt like the voice that spoke loudest in the game was one that struggled for words in defeat. Western Kentucky redshirt senior Kendall Noble took 22 shots and hit just seven. But on a day when little else worked for her team offensively, her ability to get in the lane and create shots out of slivers of space made it a game into the final minute.

The player who stood out was the one going home for the final time as a collegian.

"I wasn't highly recruited when I came out of high school," said Noble, voice faltering but accent leaving little doubt as to her roots in the region. "But WKU was the perfect fit for me, and it all worked out. And I thank God that He brought me into coach [Michelle Clark-Heard's] life.

"She just pushed me and made me into the player I am today."

The first day of the tournament isn't always memorable. It doesn't traditionally offer up as many upsets, or even close calls, as are the hallmark of the men's tournament. And those who lose rarely offer reason to remember.

That wasn't the case in Lexington, where everyone got to see what Belmont is, which is a lot more than a No. 13 seed.

"No matter what the circumstances are, we are never going to give up," Maggard said. "That stems from our love for one another. That stems from our willingness to put in the work every single day in practice. I think that no matter what, people learned that we're fighters."

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