LOUISVILLE, Ky. — With about four minutes left in the third quarter, Rikki Harris battled three Louisville players for a rebound and emerged with the ball in her hands.
She slipped the ball to Taylor Thierry, who found Madison Greene in the opposite corner for a wide-open 3-pointer. Greene's basket got the Buckeyes within one point of the Cardinals, but it was the way Harris fought for the rebound that made a clear statement of how Ohio State was approaching the second half.
After trailing by seven points at halftime, the No. 4 Buckeyes (7-0) pulled away from No. 18 Louisville (3-3) in the second half to win 96-77 — in large part due to Harris' efforts off the bench. Harris finished with 10 rebounds, six assists, five points and two steals.
"Rikki," Jacy Sheldon said when asked what made the difference for Ohio State. "She made some unbelievable plays. We all did, defensively, but I think a lot of those steals are from her and her intensity. Once she gets going, we play off her."
Wednesday's game at the KFC Yum Center bore a striking similarity to the Buckeyes' season-opening win over then-No. 5 Tennessee. In both games, Ohio State was behind at halftime and went on a run in the second half that was fueled by its defense.
Against the Lady Vols, the game turned on an 18-0 run in the third quarter. Wednesday, it took the Buckeyes longer to pull ahead — they didn't take the lead until 2:38 left in the third quarter — but once they went into the lead, they didn't look back.
Ohio State outscored Louisville 35-18 after taking the lead, including a 31-point fourth quarter.
"We kept a really aggressive pace throughout the game," coach Kevin McGuff said. "We kept up with the press. We were able to, I think, wear them down with that. When that started to happen, we started to get out and get some easy baskets in transition."
The Buckeyes struggled to get into a rhythm in the early part of the game and turned the ball over 12 times in the first half. They opened the game with back-to-back steals, but only converted those steals into one point — a free throw by freshman Cotie McMahon — while the Cardinals jumped out to an early 6-1 lead.
Despite not looking fully settled as a five-player unit, 12 first-half points from Taylor Mikesell kept the Buckeyes within striking distance, preventing Louisville from riding Hailey Van Lith's offensive prowess to an insurmountable lead.
In the second quarter, forward Rebeka Mikulasikova was briefly shaken up after a fall and left the game for several minutes. The 6-4 senior's presence in the paint has been a key for the Buckeyes this year, but for this particular matchup, a smaller lineup proved effective. Ohio State didn't manage to take a lead in the quarter, but the Cardinals weren't able to pull away.
"It was different," Harris said. "We’ve never tried that, but I liked it. It gave us a better advantage with the 5, just because (Thierry) is not a 5 player, she’s a guard. She was able to get to the basket and pulled their 5 out a little bit more. It opened up the paint for everybody else. I think it worked well."
Coming out of halftime, McGuff kept Madison Greene on the floor, rather than re-inserting McMahon, who had started the game. Greene scored just five points in her 14:40 of first-half action, but her speed and defensive ability were crucial in giving the Buckeyes a chance to stay in the game.
It was fitting, then, that Greene had three assists in the third quarter and was instrumental in Ohio State pulling ahead for the first time all night. Her three with 4:04 left in the quarter got the Buckeyes within one, and less than two minutes later, it was another Harris offensive rebound that brought them the lead. Mikesell's second-chance layup gave Ohio State the lead 61-59 with 2:38 remaining in the third quarter.
Harris continued to play a major role for the Buckeyes in the fourth quarter, making two of three free throws to stretch their lead to 12 points and then stealing the ball from Van Lith before passing to Mikesell for a layup.
"She’s the heart and soul of our team in many ways, just from a competitive character standpoint," McGuff said. "She does all the little things. She got tough rebound after tough rebound tonight. Dove on the floor for loose balls. Just a great performance. Really, really needed it. We have a lot of weapons offensively, but we need somebody to do that. That was huge for us tonight. Rikki was spectacular."
The Cardinals pieced together a brief run midway through the fourth quarter, but Ohio State's defense quickly snuffed out the threat, and the offense continued to stretch the lead at the other end of the floor. After a tightly-fought first 30 minutes, the Buckeyes separated themselves in the final 10 for an emphatic road win — and ended Louisville's streak of 48 straight home non-conference wins.
"At halftime, honestly, we just had to regroup and play the way we do," Sheldon said. "The second half, we did that."
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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Ohio State beats Louisville 96-77 in ACC-Big Ten Challenge