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Linnae Harper's return to Kentucky sends Ohio State to Sweet 16

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Linnae Harper ducked the question. Politely and cordially. But fully.

She eased around it like the big bodies she slides between in search of all those rebounds someone her size (5-foot-8) should not be able to claim. She surveyed the scene in front of her and deftly dispatched the query like one of the look-away passes with which she sets up easy layups.

She ducked and ducked well.

Then again, it's hard to blame her. She has to come back here in less than a week.

Or more accurately, the Ohio State guard earned the right to come back to Lexington. Her Buckeyes get to come back, shifting only from Memorial Coliseum to nearby Rupp Arena for the Sweet 16, largely because of how well Harper played Sunday on the same court on which she last lost a tournament game.

That was back when it was her home court, when she was part of Big Blue Nation and heard their cheers as a player at Kentucky. This time, she wore the visiting red and helped No. 5 seed Ohio State beat No. 4 Kentucky 82-68 on its court in the second round of the tournament.

So with it done, she was asked, would she rather have reached the Sweet 16 somewhere else? Or was there something of value to take from coming back here as a transfer and doing it this way?

"Just looking in the moment right now," Harper responded. "Just being with our team, and the preparation we put in for this game and how well we played, are just really the main things."

Additional attempts to crack the same vault met with no more success.

For the second time Sunday, she proved to be a riddle none present could solve.

Harper finished with 12 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists and two steals in 27 minutes. Ohio State outscored Kentucky by 14 points when she was on the court. The teams were even on the scoreboard when she wasn't. She was both spectacular and subtle. Ohio State wouldn't have won without her. Kentucky might have won with her. But she wasn't going to talk about her own journey or her last game for Kentucky, a second-round NCAA tournament upset loss to Dayton in 2015.

That was left to others.

"She's a team-first player, so I knew she was going to be everything about trying to win this game for the team," Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff said. "But it's naive to think there's not going to be some emotion tied to it, coming back to the program where you transferred from and playing them on their home court. So I was watching her in practice the day before, and she looked great. She was locked in, she was focused. She was just on point with everything we were doing. So I was like, 'I'm not going to say a word to her. She's ready.'

"I didn't want to make a bigger deal of it than I needed to."

"She's been in big games, so there's never a sense of worry when she's on the court. But what she does is she's always going to rebound, she's a great passer and she just makes tough plays when you need them the most."

Ohio State associate coach Patrick Klein

Ohio State's win, which earned the Buckeyes their second Sweet 16 trip in as many seasons and the 11th in program history, was born of familiar material. All-American Kelsey Mitchell needed all of five seconds after the opening tip to hit a 3-pointer and make her first three shots. Mitchell could break Kelsey Plum's paint-still-drying NCAA career scoring record if she returns for her final season of eligibility, and she had 19 points by halftime.

Not always the most visibly expressive player on the court, Mitchell's repeated wide grins as she backpedaled downcourt -- after her own field goals or those from teammates like Sierra Calhoun, another transfer hitting her stride -- told the story of how thoroughly Ohio State's pace put the Wildcats on their heels.

"Kelsey didn't have her best game against Western Kentucky," McGuff said of a 15-point first-round performance. "So the last thing I told her was remember that she was the best player on the court. So she was ready and got us off to a great start."

Harper first checked into the game midway through the first quarter. She scored 16 seconds later. And then she recorded an assist on a no-look pass less than a minute after that. A veteran of both the NCAA tournament and a FIBA youth world championship, she looked to be in her element. That proved useful as Kentucky slowly worked its way back into the game.

"She's one of the most positive kids," Ohio State associate coach Patrick Klein said. "She's always talking in practice and brings a great sense of team to practice. I think what makes it special with her is she's played in big games, whether it be with USA, [at Kentucky], with us. She's been in big games, so there's never a sense of worry when she's on the court. But what she does is she's always going to rebound, she's a great passer, and she just makes tough plays when you need them the most."

That was borne out as the minutes ticked away in the final quarter, and Ohio State's lead with them. Down as many as 19 points shortly after halftime, Kentucky got a quick burst of six points from Makayla Epps in her final game. The Wildcats then whittled away. A 3-pointer from Maci Morris late in the third quarter cut the deficit to single digits. Another Morris 3 cut it to three points with plenty of time remaining.

After Kentucky's Taylor Murray scored and got a defensive rebound on the other end, the Wildcats had the ball and an improbable opportunity to pull even or go ahead on a 3. But after the ball slipped away from Evelyn Akhator on an inbounds play under the basket, Harper went the other way. She didn't pass this time. She got Morris off her feet with a shot fake, took the contact and hit a shot that bounced off the back of the rim and in. The free throw made it 65-60.

Three more rebounds and three more assists from Harper later, Ohio State sealed the win.

"She was really good -- great," McGuff said. "She's such a unique player because you don't ever see a perimeter player who can rebound like she can. So she can do some things that other people can't. You really kind of saw it all come together for her today."

Not eligible this season until the second semester after leaving Kentucky a few weeks before the start of the 2015-16 regular season, Harper took some time to find her place in Ohio State's style. But a player with the ability to be both a defensive stopper and an elite, if undersized, rebounder, is a godsend for a team that struggles at times to defend and rebound.

"Our entire team, top to bottom, is very skilled offensively," Harper said. "I think I switched my mentality a little bit to the defensive side because defense wins the bulk of the games. I love to play defense. I think it's a tough skill that we need for our team. It's contagious, too."

Ohio State's Tori McCoy and Alexa Hart were left to do much of the outstanding defensive work against Akhator, who shot 4-of-20 from the floor, but Harper's defensive rebounding at least ameliorated Kentucky's second-chance success.

Harper has never really opened up about why she transferred. She posted a lengthy message on social media at the time, but it clarified little. That it was one of so many departures from the program in a short period of time made it that much more noticeable.

Kentucky seniors Akhator and Epps spoke warmly and poignantly about their time with coach Matthew Mitchell, who wasn't keen to roll out the welcome mat for Harper. The team that remained achieved about all it could. The team that could have been didn't interest him.

"I moved on from that so long ago, as far as the people who didn't want to be here," Mitchell said. "All of my emotion, effort and work has gone into this particular team. This was a remarkable team, and I hope that this now puts all of this -- finally, we can move forward [from the personnel turnover]. Kentucky is a great place. Some people decided not to be here. We treated all of those folks with a lot of respect and let them go and do whatever they wanted to do."

Unfortunately for him, that led Harper back to Memorial Coliseum on Sunday.

And it will bring her back to town later this week.