Mitchell, Harper lead Ohio State past Kentucky and into Sweet 16

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- It's a scenario played out countless times at Churchill Downs, the famous racetrack an hour or so to the east of Memorial Coliseum and the University of Kentucky.

Ohio State had the lead as two thoroughbred teams made the turn for home.

But Kentucky was charging hard on the outside.

Cheered on by a partisan home crowd, Kentucky ran out of steam just shy of the finish line. Fifth-seeded Ohio State, its lead once as big as 19 points before the fourth-seeded Wildcats trimmed it to a single point, held on for an 82-68 win.

Kelsey Mitchell led the Buckeyes with 21 points and is on to her second Sweet 16. Makayla Epps matched Mitchell with 21 points in her final college game for the Wildcats, the program for which her father also played.

There is more to come from Lexington, but here are some thoughts at the final buzzer.

Player of the game: Mitchell needed five seconds to hit her first 3-pointer in the first quarter, which suggested the game against Kentucky was going to be different from the first-round win against Western Kentucky in a variety of ways. First, it wasn't going to be a slow night for Ohio State's All-American. Second, it wasn't going to be a slow anything for the Buckeyes in terms of tempo. The second half wasn't nearly as comfortable, Kentucky trapping her effectively to take the Buckeyes out of their rhythm, but she did her work early.

How it was won: The winning points technically came from Tori McCoy on a free throw with five minutes to play in the fourth quarter. And Ohio State did regroup and finish well after ceding most of a substantial lead. But the Buckeyes won this game with its pace in the first half. They raced to just enough of a lead to hold it through the second half travails. By the time Kentucky found its footing and slowed the game, it was too late.

Turning point: Its comeback nearly complete, Kentucky had a chance to tie the score down 62-60. Evelyn Akhator lost control of the ball off an inbounds play and it rolled back out of bounds to Ohio State. At the other end, Linnae Harper got Maci Morris up in the air with a shot fake, then earned the opportunity for a three-point play when her actual shot bounced off the back of the rim and in. Harper hit the free throw and Ohio State led by five points again. Morris appeared to sustain a back injury on the play and had to briefly leave the game. Kentucky eventually cut the deficit back down to as little as a single point, but it never pulled level.

Stat of the game: Ohio State's six turnovers. It's somewhat remarkable that Kentucky could even make the kind of run it did in the second half without many points off turnovers.

X factor: Harper knows how Kentucky feels, literally. She was on the court as part of Big Blue Nation when Kentucky lost a shootout to Dayton in the second round two years ago at Memorial Coliseum. Her return, now in an Ohio State uniform after transferring, is a big reason Kentucky fans again went home unhappy. The points she scored, including that vital three-point play, were part of it. But points are never the full story with Harper, a phenomenal-if-undersized rebounder and terrific passer. Her 10 rebounds and eight assists were as valuable.

Home not sweet home: No team had more bracket fortune than Kentucky the past three seasons. The Wildcats played seven NCAA tournament games in that span without ever playing away from home (counting their secondary home at Rupp Arena). They went just 4-3 in that span, twice eliminated at home in the second round.

What's next: Ohio State moves on to the regional at nearby Rupp Arena, about a mile away in Lexington. It awaits the winner of the second-round game between No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 9 Purdue, to be played later Sunday in South Bend, Indiana (ESPN2/WatchESPN, 9:05 p.m. ET).

This is the 11th trip to the Sweet 16 for Ohio State and the second with the program for both Buckeyes coach Kevin McGuff and his early signature recruit Mitchell. The program's last win in the regional semifinal round, on the other hand, predates both of them by quite a bit. Ohio State last advanced to a regional final in 1993, en route to its only Final Four appearance.

Ohio State and Notre Dame don't have a great deal of shared history on the court, Notre Dame's win a season ago just their fourth all-time meeting. But there is a well-documented link between Fighting Irish coach Muffet McGraw and McGuff, one of her former assistant coaches.