After playing on the road for the past two contests, the No. 7 Ohio State women’s basketball team (21-4, 13-1) gets to play on its home court for the next week.
Occupying the Big Ten’s top spot, the Buckeyes are set to face off against Nebraska (17-8, 8-6) Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Schottenstein Center.
After a win over Michigan State on Sunday, the Huskers come to Columbus looking to keep their energy alive and pull off an upset in the mid-February matchup.
The Buckeyes, however, are more focused than ever, keeping their eyes focused on the mission while understanding that every team that steps onto the hardwood against them is looking to take away their crown.
“Everybody wants to take the person that’s on top out,” said junior forward Shayla Cooper. “Every night we need to come prepared.”
OSU coach Kevin McGuff has harped on the mental toughness his team must have coming down the stretch of the regular season and heading into the conference tournament, especially because of its high ranking. But for now, the Scarlet and Gray are determined to take care of business one game at a time.
In the all-time series history between the two programs, Nebraska holds a 7-5 lead. Nonetheless, OSU was the team that came out on top last time, a 78-60 victory in March to finish the 2014-15 regular season.
Precise post play
When it comes to Nebraska’s scoring attack, the Huskers turn to their freshman forward Jessica Shepard. Her scoring average of 20.6 points per game ranks fifth in the Big Ten.
Shepard understands the game well for a freshman and knows when to kick the ball out to her teammates when the defense begins to collapse. Being one of the top 3-point shooting teams in the Big Ten, the 6-foot-4 Shepard keeps her head on a swivel to find the open woman and get high-quality shots.
With the Buckeyes having a guard-heavy roster, their main focus will be to protect the paint and prevent Shepard from being an offensive threat.
“(The Cornhuskers) have a really nice post player,” Cooper said of Shepard. “And they have really nice shooters that spot up. We just have to defend the post and get out to the 3-point shooters.”
Shepard’s effectiveness doesn’t end with the scoring column, though. She dominates the boards as well, averaging 8.9 rebounds per game, including 3.2 offensive rebounds per contest. With these statistics in mind, OSU will need to go back to the fundamentals and make sure it boxes out on all defensive possessions to prohibit second-chance opportunities.
The Buckeyes are in second-to-last place in defensive rebound percentage. Conversely, the Cornhuskers — powered by Shepard’s prowess on the glass — are third in the conference in that category. Rebounding, it seems, will be a major factor in declaring a winner.
The Buckeyes are slated to play their last home game of the season Sunday against Illinois. It will be the second meeting between these two teams this year. The first matchup came on Feb. 1 in Champaign, Illinois, when OSU won 80-70.
The OSU women’s basketball program will honor its two senior guards, Ameryst Alston and Cait Craft, on Sunday in a pregame ceremony, as it scheduled to be their last moments in scarlet and gray at the Schott in the regular season.
The two have been fixtures of McGuff’s team since he arrived in Columbus, starting each game they played in during the last three seasons. Alston in particular has been one of the standouts of the program’s history, as she was on the All-Big Ten first team during her sophomore and junior seasons and recently eclipsed the 2,000-point mark for her career.
This season, Alston has started all 25 games, averaging 18.8 points and a team-high 3.8 assists per contest. Craft has started the 24 games she appeared in, averaging just 4.9 points per game but ranking third on the team with 23 3-pointers made and regularly receiving the opposition’s top defensive assignments.
Tipoff for the matchup against the Fighting Illini is set for 2 p.m.