Fresh off its first win over a top-10 team this season, the No. 10 Ohio State women’s basketball team (4-2) enters the Purcell Pavilion in South Bend, Indiana, on Wednesday at 7 p.m. to take on No. 3 Notre Dame (6-0). The Fighting Irish are the Buckeyes’ third opponent ranked in the top 3 thus far.
Since opening the season with two losses — falling 88-80 against No. 2 South Carolina (7-0) and getting demolished 100-56 by No. 1 Connecticut (4-0) — OSU has bounced back with four straight wins.
Although three of the four wins come against teams with a combined record of 7-9, the Buckeyes’ latest victory comes over then-No. 10 Texas A&M, 95-80, in the South Point Shootout, an early-season tournament held in Las Vegas over the Thanksgiving holiday. In the victory, sophomore guard Kelsey Mitchell tied OSU’s single-game record for points, scoring an eye-popping 42 points on 12-of-20 shooting. She hit 15 of 16 shots from the line, as well.
OSU coach Kevin McGuff said he sees the win as a confidence-booster heading into another game against an elite team in Notre Dame.
“We showed people we weren’t afraid to play these people, but at some point you’ve got to start beating them,” McGuff said. “So I think it was important to win that A&M game, and hopefully our kids took a lot of confidence from that win.”
McGuff’s team’s next test, the Fighting Irish, enter Wednesday night’s showdown with an efficient, balanced team on offense. Four players average double-digit points, including freshman guard Marina Mabrey, Notre Dame’s top bench player. Last week, Mabrey broke out and was named ACC Freshman of the Week, as she averaged 18.3 points, 7.3 steals, 5.3 assists and 4.3 rebounds over a three-game stretch.
Notre Dame supplements Mabrey’s driving ability by surrounding her with 3-point shooters and post scorers. The Fighting Irish have made an astonishing 45.2 percent of their 3-point attempts. Leading the team from downtown is Mabrey’s sister, Michaela, who leads the team with 25 attempts from deep.
The fans in attendance should not expect a slow-paced defensive battle. The Buckeyes’ style of utilizing the full-court press, fast-break points and quick shots has led to OSU averaging 82.7 points per game — and that includes its poor performance against UCONN. But Notre Dame tops that, averaging 88.3 points in its first six games.
To complement its high-powered offense, Notre Dame boasts a plus-8.3 turnover margin, a category OSU usually thrives on due to its ball pressure and trapping. If the Buckeyes are to knock off the Fighting Irish, Mitchell and a duo of senior guards, Ameryst Alston and Cait Craft, must protect the ball on offense and force Notre Dame to turn the ball over.
“We know that they’re an amazing team and they come with a lot of great players,” Mitchell said before Monday’s practice. “I think Coach McGuff and all the rest of the coaches will let us know what’s going to happen today so we can put ourselves in a good position.”
OSU is looking to build of its experience in Columbia, South Carolina against No. 2 South Carolina to prepare for Notre Dame’s crowd.
“Their crowd was crazy,” Mitchell said of South Carolina. “They’ve got a great atmosphere, a great environment for the fans. I know Notre Dame will have the same thing because they’re such a great team.”
Student vs. teacher
McGuff said this battle of top-10 teams matters greatly to him, as he is able to face off against his mentor, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw.
“She’s been so great to me and my family. You know it’s hard to play against your friends and mentors,” McGuff said. “But we’re two competitive people and when the lights come on on Wednesday night we’re both going to certainly do the best for our teams to try to win the game.”
Prior to McGuff accepting the job as head coach of Xavier in 2002, he worked for six years as an assistant under McGraw at Notre Dame.
During his time in South Bend, McGuff helped guide Notre Dame to two Final Fours, winning a national championship in 2001. He said he considers McGraw an important friend and mentor.
“I just have great respect for her and how much success she’s had at that program and, more importantly, who she is as a person,” McGuff said.
Kelsey Mitchell: On fire
Mitchell’s 42 points versus now-No. 12 Texas A&M tied Samantha Prahalis for OSU’s single-game scoring record. This, her fourth performance of more than 20 points in a row, led to espnW naming her its national player of the week, while the South Point Shootout selected her as the tournament’s most outstanding player.
The preseason All-American is able to score from everywhere on the court. Mitchell averages 41.2 percent on 3-pointers and 85.1 percent at the free-throw line, as she is frequently rewarded for using her elite burst to drive into the lane.
However, Mitchell continues to never take credit for her own success. She often brushes off comments about her record-breaking performance, preferring to talk exclusively about the team and the group’s goals.
“I feel pretty normal, I don’t feel no different,” Mitchell said. “Whatever the case, whatever accolades, my coaches and my teammates put me in the right position.”
Alexa Hart’s importance
Sophomore forward Alexa Hart finally broke out in Friday’s 75-65 win over Liberty, when she scored 18 points and grabbed five rebounds.
The Buckeyes have struggled to defend and rebound in the interior, as Hart and junior forward Shayla Cooper play the majority of minutes in the paint. McGuff said he hopes Hart will pick up her game as OSU must negate its opponents’ main advantage of rebounding. The Buckeyes are being outrebounded by an average of six boards per game.
“She used her speed, quickness up the court against Liberty’s bigger post players. That’s what we need out of her,” McGuff said. “She’s a really important part of what we’re trying to do here and we need that type of production on a nightly basis.”