The Ohio State women’s basketball team nearly limped into the NCAA tournament following a pair of excruciating end-of-the-season overtime losses, a semifinal exit from the Big Ten tournament and an untimely injury to senior guard Ameryst Alston.
The odds of advancing deep in the NCAA tournament are usually unfavorable to teams that have problems pile up in March, but the Buckeyes have been resilient despite facing adversity. On Sunday afternoon at St. John Arena, the pressure was at its peak with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line.
Despite a back-and-forth struggle with sixth-seeded West Virginia, the Mountaineers eventually fell victim to their plethora of turnovers, with the 27th and final one pounding the nail in their coffin.
“We just started to apply more pressure in our press to get them to turn the ball over,” said junior forward Shayla Cooper.
With just under 30 seconds remaining and the Buckeyes leading by four points, sophomore guard Kelsey Mitchell ran down the court to recover an errant Mountaineers pass. The heads-up play secured an 88-81 victory and Sweet 16 berth for the Buckeyes, as the layup finally put West Virginia out of reach.
“These last two and a half weeks it’s been pressure, in capital words: PRESSURE,” Mitchell said. “I think when we applied that and we did that, I think it helped us.”
Mitchell led the way for the Buckeyes by setting a school record for points in an NCAA tournament game with 45, aided by making 18 of her 22 attempts from the free-throw line. Cooper added 15 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.
Senior guard Bria Holmes was the high scorer for the Mountaineers, netting 21 points.
West Virginia stifled OSU from the moment the two teams tipped off. Almost immediately, one could tell the Buckeyes were going to be in for a more physical challenge than the one that No. 14 seed Buffalo imposed on Friday.
On top of playing suffocating defense from the onset, the Mountaineers also had an apparent height advantage over the Buckeyes. However, after using the first quarter to settle into a comfortable pace and feel for the game, West Virginia’s defense became permeable for OSU.
“I know our main focus, as coach (Kevin) McGuff put big emphasis on, is pushing the ball as fast as possible, getting the ball out as quick as possible,” Mitchell said.
The Mountaineers did, though, continuously hold an advantage all afternoon on the boards. On top of outrebounding the Buckeyes by 11 boards on the day, West Virginia also did not allow an OSU offensive rebound over the entire first half.
Thus, the Buckeyes did not have a sufficient amount of second-chance opportunities to counteract West Virginia’s efficient start. In addition to missing out on extra scoring opportunities, OSU had difficulties converting in the first place.
“We love to run too, so it was an up-and-down game,” Holmes said. “I feel like it was anybody’s game from the tip.”
One of the Buckeyes who started off cold was Mitchell, who missed her first three shots. However, she quickly became accustomed to the defensive tendencies of West Virginia. Mitchell broke the Mountaineers’ man-to-man defense with her fluid ball-handling skills and ability to open up previously closed lanes.
“She handles the ball and has got speed and quickness like nobody else in college basketball,” McGuff said. “West Virginia is a really good defensive team, but I think we were able to get into transition and just play with enough spacing to give her opportunities to drive the ball, and it was really effective for us today.”
The sophomore guard closed out the half as the game’s leading scorer, connecting on six of her eight successive attempts for 20 points.
It was Mitchell’s aggressive efforts combined with characteristically sloppy play from the Mountaineers that fueled uncontested runs of nine and eight points during the second quarter. West Virginia averaged just over 16 turnovers per game during the regular season, but it had already racked up 14 heading into the second half.
The Buckeyes ended up turning the 27 total turnovers into 40 points, which — on top of 3-point shooting and a surplus of trips to the foul line — was one of the differences in the outcome of Sunday’s second-round matchup.
“The momentum of the game was up, so I felt we were just rushing things,” Holmes said. “We should’ve slowed some more and executed better.”
It was runs like the Buckeyes put together in the second quarter on Sunday that buried Buffalo in the first round of the tournament two days prior.
Eventually the Buckeyes did the same to West Virginia.
“We tried to put a lot of pressure in the backcourt in our press, and I think it was really, really effective down the stretch,” Mitchell said.
While OSU struggled at times to gain a solid footing during the first quarter, the back-to-back spurts that started off the second period tied the game, then subsequently established an eight-point lead. The Buckeyes maintained a shaky two-possession lead for most of the second half, but fatigue seemed to be setting in.
Unlike Friday’s contest, the Buckeyes did not dig as deep into the bench despite Alston returning to the lineup with a sprained right wrist. Alston logged 21 minutes off the bench against the Mountaineers, but the air-tight score that lingered for most of the game primarily kept OSU’s starting five on the court.
“That’s probably their — I don’t want to say weakness because they just beat us — but they’re not as deep as a lot of teams we play,” said West Virginia coach Mike Carey.
McGuff will have a few days to mull over how he wants to distribute the reserve minutes before the Buckeyes’ Sweet 16 matchup on either March 27 or March 28 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
OSU is set to face the winner of the second-round contest between No. 7 seed Tennessee and second-seeded Arizona State. Those two teams are scheduled to play Sunday at 9 p.m. in Tempe, Arizona.