Kentucky head coach Matthew Mitchell reacts to a call during a second round women's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament against Oklahoma in Lexington, Ky., Monday, March 21, 2016. (AP Photo/James Crisp)
James Crisp
March 21, 2016

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Unsure if Kentucky teammate Makayla Epps would return from a shoulder injury, senior guard Janee Thompson stepped up to provide veteran leadership that carried the Wildcats back in the Sweet 16.

Thompson scored 16 points, including nine straight over the third and fourth quarters, to help No. 3 seed Kentucky beat sixth-seeded Oklahoma 79-58 for a second-round NCAA Tournament victory on Monday night.

The Wildcats (25-7) earned their fifth round of 16 berth in seven seasons and will play a few blocks away from campus at Rupp Arena, home of the men's team. Thompson deserves credit for helping her team through a tense stretch that featured a big hand from Epps despite playing with a sprained right shoulder.

The injury forced Epps to briefly leave the game in the third quarter before she returned to grab a key offensive rebound leading to Thompson's jumper and a 50-44 lead. Epps (13 points) and Thompson followed with 3-pointers before the senior opened the fourth quarter with six free throws for a 62-49 lead that Kentucky steadily expanded.

''It really set in for me that I needed to step up when Makayla got hurt,'' said Thompson, who made 7 of 8 free throws and shot 4 of 14 to surpass 1,000 career points in her final game at Memorial Coliseum.

''She looked like she was hurting pretty bad and I wasn't sure if she was going to be able to come back. She's one of the best scorers in the country and we were struggling to score, so I tried to just attack and other than that just make sure we locked in on defense.''

Gioya Carter's 12 points led Oklahoma (22-11), which shot just 17 percent in the fourth quarter and 27 percent overall.

''We made a run and then we had some miscommunication on defense,'' Carter said, ''and that kind of got them going and got the crowd into it. And it just spiraled from there.''

Alexis Jennings added 13 points, Maci Morris 12 on four 3-pointers and Evelyn Akhator 11 as all eight Kentucky players scored. The Wildcats certainly needed that balance in a physical, hard-fought game featuring 43 combined fouls.

Kentucky, which will face seven-seed Washington in the Sweet 16, took advantage to make 29 of 38 attempts, compared to 16 of 19 for the Sooners. Epps made 10 of 14, including several while favoring the shoulder that was injured in a collision with Carter early in the third. Her 3-pointer was the only field goal in a 1-of-6 night shooting.

Epps said there was never a doubt that she'd return to a close game and with so much at stake.

''It's the second round, we were up two with a lifetime to play, and I just couldn't leave them hanging,'' Epps said. ''But it's good to be on a team that, like, if one of us goes out, we've got people that can pick up the slack.''

Fortunately for Epps, others stepped up for Kentucky in a game it shot 38 percent from the field.

Morris came out with the hot hand, making three 3-pointers to help the Wildcats emerge with a 20-19 lead after a back-and-forth first quarter. The freshman's long-range accuracy was certainly necessary with the Sooners' effective defense on Epps, forcing her to the foul line for many of her points.

''The game plan wasn't to give her 14 free throws, I can tell you that,'' Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale said. ''Never in a million years would I have thought they would have 29 points from the free throw line. That's crazy. I thought Thompson was really key. She looked like a senior running her team.''

TIP-INS

Oklahoma: Fell to 30-17 in the NCAA Tournament under Coale. ... Peyton Little added 10 points for the Sooners, who were edged on the boards 41-40.

Kentucky: Improved to 15-6 in the NCAA Tournament under coach Matthew Mitchell.

UP NEXT

Oklahoma: Season over.

Kentucky: Lexington Region semifinal against Washington on Friday.

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