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Women’s basketball: Ohio State begins its NCAA tournament against Western Kentucky — preview

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OSU then-sophomore guard Kelsey Mitchell (3) makes a move to the basket during a game against Nebraska on Feb. 18, 2016 at the Schottenstein Center. Credit: Lantern File Photo

Ohio State have learned their fate for the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament, now the journey to the Final Four begins.

The Buckeyes (26-6) will enter the tournament as a No. 5 seed and are set to face off against No. 12 seed Western Kentucky in Lexington, Kentucky.

OSU is coming off a lost against Purdue in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament, ending the team’s 11-game winning streak.

The Buckeyes struggled shooting versus Purdue, hitting on just 34 percent of shots. OSU will again face another staunch defensive team in the Hilltoppers, who hold their opponents to an average of 62 points per game.

On the other side of the ball, Western Kentucky has three players that average in double figures — Kendall Noble (16.1 points per game), Tashia Brown (13.4) and Ivy Brown (13.3). Those three also contribute heavily on the glass, leading the team in rebounding.

OSU coach Kevin McGuff said that Western Kentucky will provide competition from the start.

“We’ll have a real challenge in the first game,” McGuff said. “That program — they’re used to winning, so they’re going to prepare well. They’re very well coached and they’re going to play extremely hard.”

If the Buckeyes make it past the Hilltoppers, they will move on to the second round and play on Sunday against the winner of No.4 Kentucky and No. 13 Belmont.

Redshirt junior guard Linnae Harper is a Kentucky transfer and said that she is excited to have the opportunity to face her old teammates.

“It’s definitely going to be a little weird,” Harper said. “The first game I’m playing two former UK teammates, but I think it will go well. That would be the best feeling in the world (beating Kentucky and advancing in the tournament). That’s the one thing I’m looking forward to.”

Looking at the big picture, Big Ten Player of the Year, junior guard Kelsey Mitchell, will be an X factor for the Buckeyes in the tournament. The Buckeyes find their success when Mitchell leads the way in scoring. In their previous 11-game win streak, Mitchell scored 20 points or more in 10 of the 11 games. In their first lost since January, the Boilermakers held Mitchell to single digits.

Another major factor will be the return, or absence, of junior forward Stephanie Mavunga. Mavunga has been out with a foot injury since the beginning of February. At the time of her injury, she was leading the Big Ten in rebounding and was the Buckeyes’ second leading scorer.

McGuff said that they won’t know if Mavunga will return by Friday’s game.

“She’s worked really hard in rehab, but it could go either way,” he said. “I don’t know yet, I don’t know. That’ll be more of a gametime decision. We’re hopeful, it’s definitely a possibility. Nothing is definite yet either way.”

The Buckeyes have the potential to play four consecutive games in Lexington. The first and second rounds will be played in Lexington at Memorial Coliseum, and if OSU wins the first two games, the team will advance to regionals, which are also played in Lexington at Rupp Arena.

OSU will tip-off for its first round game on Friday at 2:30 p.m. against Western Kentucky.

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