The week leading up to the Big Ten tournament was incredibly rough on the Ohio State women’s basketball team. The team endured two road defeats after struggling through four grueling overtime periods, a deflating feeling heading into postseason play.
After disposing of Rutgers, the Buckeyes headed into a semifinal matchup with the Michigan State Spartans with hopes of setting things straight before the NCAA tournament. However, OSU suffered two defeats against the Spartans: a near-20-point loss and the realization that the sprained right wrist suffered by senior guard Ameryst Alston the game before would prevent her from being too involved in the offense.
That instability heading in could have been a reason for the No. 3-seeded Buckeyes’ apparent unreadiness to start Friday’s first-round NCAA tournament contest against No. 14 seed Buffalo. Eventually, however, the OSU offense overcame the early-game nerves, sending the Bulls packing with an 88-69 victory at St. John Arena.
“It just felt like and looked like we got back to playing more like the team we’re capable of being,” said OSU coach Kevin McGuff.
With Alston on the bench, sophomore guards Kelsey Mitchell and Asia Doss paved the way offensively for the Buckeyes, tallying a game-high 27 and a career-high 16 points, respectively. A pair of forwards, sophomore Alexa Hart and junior Shayla Cooper, provided the opposite with a punishing presence for the Buckeyes down low. Hart came up big for the Buckeyes with five rebounds, five blocks and two steals.
As a team the Buckeyes shot 52.4 percent from the field and 47.1 percent from three, with the distribution of scoring being divided mostly between Mitchell, Doss and Cooper, who netted 17 points.
The defensive pressure fueled by the full-court press resulted in Buffalo shooting just under 30 percent from the field. The Bulls hit the offensive boards hard, but their inability to finish around the rim erased their efforts in the paint. Sophomore guard Joanna Smith finished the day with a team-high 23 points.
“I think that their length and their size just got the better of us for a bit,” said Buffalo freshman forward Courtney Wilkins.
The Buffalo defense heavily contested the Buckeyes at the start of each quarter. OSU would hit their stride at the end of every period, but the break in between allowed the Bulls ample time to adapt and break the Buckeyes’ rhythm.
The first few minutes of the first and second quarters were troublesome for the Buckeyes. Buffalo opened Friday’s contest with a 7-2 advantage, but the OSU women stifled the Bulls over the final five minutes of the first quarter.
“I thought our defense did a good job with attacking them aggressively the first couple minutes of the game, but then after that they have guards that still did a good job at attacking,” Smith said.
Despite allowing the Bulls to get the upper hand early on, the Buckeyes were extremely dangerous on Friday once they hit their stride. Unanswered runs of 22 and nine points in the first and second quarters, respectively, thwarted any previous Buffalo efforts toward an upset.
“I feel like we had to pick (our defense) up a lot, and we emphasized that in practice,” Doss said.
Doss sparked the initial run by the Buckeyes, hitting the second of back-to-back 3-pointers to give OSU its first lead of the game with just over three and a half minutes remaining in the first period. From that point on, the Buckeyes never trailed again.
Mitchell and Doss were the spark plugs for the offense on Friday, shooting a combined 53.6 percent from the field. The backcourt duo was often the initiator in overwhelming Buffalo with the offensive onslaught that was present at most times throughout the season.
The difference in Friday’s scoring dominance centered around the absence of Alston. The senior guard being confined to the sidelines was noticeable at first, but OSU found its groove in patches.
When the team was completely in sync, the Buckeyes seemed like one of the most dangerous forces in the country.
However, the spell of droughts, which only came in small pockets, presented some trouble.
“Buffalo, they got off to a quick start, and our kids didn’t panic,” McGuff said. “We just kind of kept doing the things that make us good.”
The Buckeye defense stepped up immensely whenever the offense sputtered, keeping tabs on Buffalo’s offense all day long. During OSU’s uncontested runs, the Bulls missed on all 16 of their shots, while the Buckeyes forced four turnovers and blocked five shots.
The defensive pressure the Scarlet and Gray forced upon the Bulls throughout the course of the game eventually wore the visitors out. Once the Buckeyes started to push the pace of the game with an effective press and forward-thinking up-court visibility, they never let up.
The drive that was on display for most of Friday’s game was what most were used to seeing throughout the course of the Buckeyes’ campaign. Even though the home team was missing Alston, a key component to the team’s regular-season success, the team chemistry became fluid as the game progressed.
“I think what was different compared to today’s game and previous games is our intensity and our focus and our concentration on a lot of stuff that needed to be focused on,” Mitchell said.
OSU led by 34 points at one point but let its foot off the gas during the final period of play. The runs that the team put together in the first half put the team in a position to cruise to the end of regulation.
“We got a little bit lackadaisical in the second half, and it’s always upsetting as a coach to see that, especially when we played so hard in the first half,” McGuff said.
Buffalo did chip into the Buckeyes’ lead at times during the second half, but Mitchell continued to step up as one of the nation’s top scorers to keep the Bulls out of striking distance.
With the advancement to the second round, the Buckeyes are set for a Sunday matchup with No. 6 seed West Virginia. Tipoff time at St. John Arena has yet to be announced.