LEXINGTON, Ky. — Ah, yes, that awkward moment when you enter the room, only to find your ex-significant other — the one you dumped for someone else — hosting the party.
Avoid eye contact? Spend the next two hours in the bathroom? Linnae Harper did neither. The Ohio State guard walked into Kentucky’s Memorial Coliseum like she owned it, surveyed the scene and turned in a NCAA Tournament performance that screamed, “How does it feel to have your heart broken … again?”
Harper would never put it that way, of course. The 5-foot-8 redshirt junior is more respectful than a boyfriend’s first meeting with the parents, and less emotional on the court than a taxidermied Wildcat. (More on that in a moment, but the spoiler alert is that Ohio State advanced to the Sweet 16 after holding on to defeat Kentucky 82-68 on Sunday.)
“Yeah, she’s a flatliner,” guard Kelsey Mitchell said of her teammate. “Most people would be too energized by something like this. She’s not. She’s the same way no matter what, and I love her for that.”
By “this,” Mitchell meant Harper’s return to Kentucky, where she played her first two seasons before transferring to Ohio State in late 2015 and becoming eligible in December after sitting out a year. She left UK for what she describes as a “better fit.” Harper was the first of five players to eventually transfer out; two assistant coaches also left.
Thus, Ohio State's tournament story line took an interesting turn when the No. 5-seeded Buckeyes were sent to Lexington. The narrative kicked into overdrive when OSU and Kentucky won their first-round games to turn Harper’s homecoming into One Shining but Still Awkward Moment.
“When we were watching the television selection show and found out we were going to Lexington, coming back to Kentucky had been on my mind ever since,” Harper said.
The question was whether the Chicagoan, who chose UK over OSU when she was recruited out of high school in 2013, would allow her return to horse country to overwhelm her when the Big Blue pep band first played "My Old Kentucky No Longer Home."
Answer: You can’t be serious. Harper had her most complete game as a Buckeye, scoring 12 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and handing out eight assists without a turnover to toy with becoming the first Ohio State player to record a triple-double since Samantha Prahalis had 13 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in a 74-68 loss to Northwestern in 2011.
“My motivation was more to survive and advance,” said Harper, downplaying the idea that her performance could be traced to some energizing uptick emanating from facing her former team. “I would have had the same mentality if we had played any other team. It just so happened we were playing Kentucky.”
Kevin McGuff wasn’t taking any chances. The Ohio State coach, who has the Buckeyes in the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive season, considered pulling Harper aside before practice Saturday to see how she was handling the situation.
“I asked my assistant, ‘Hey, should I have a conversation about it with her?’” McGuff said. “Then, watching practice, she was so focused and so locked in, I said, ‘I’m not saying anything.' I knew she was ready.”
McGuff knew his entire team was ready, too, and the Buckeyes showed it through the first two quarters and into the third, when they extended a 15-point halftime lead to 19 points.
Then the sky fell. Ohio State suddenly looked like a team trying — but failing — to exactly time when to enter a revolving door. Kentucky closed to 65-64 before the Buckeyes calmed themselves and pulled away for the win.
It should be noted that Harper never needed calming. She flatlined it the entire 40 minutes and looks forward to returning to Lexington on Friday for the Sweet 16. Nervous? Ha, that’s a good one.