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Ohio State women’s basketball team finding a way through the NCAA tournament

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OSU sophomore guard Kelsey Mitchell (3) during a second-round NCAA tournament game against West Virginia on March 20 at St. John Arena. Credit: Courtesy of OSU

OSU sophomore guard Kelsey Mitchell (3) during a second-round NCAA tournament game against West Virginia on March 20 at St. John Arena. Credit: Courtesy of OSU

Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Despite a series of obstacles blocking its way, the Ohio State women’s basketball team is chugging along and is now one of the final 16 teams left standing in the NCAA tournament.

The season was largely a successful one, with the Buckeyes even sniffing a top seed in the tournament toward the end of the regular season. But three losses in their final four games — and possibly the biggest loss of all, the health of senior guard Ameryst Alston — left the Scarlet and Gray with a lot of uncertainty as the tournament got underway.

But nearly two weeks off to find its confidence and footing again seems to have paid dividends. Now, the dream is back on.

OSU, a No. 3 seed, began its March Madness journey on the right path, knocking out Buffalo and West Virginia, but the road only gets tougher from this point on for the Buckeyes, as only the best of the best survive.

With Alston still not at 100 percent health because of a wrist injury, it will be a tall task for the Buckeyes to create an offensive flow against the tougher defensive teams they will face in the NCAA tournament.

“We just have to pick up play for her, ourselves and the coaches,” said junior forward Shayla Cooper. “For the team, I just think it says that we got our mojo back.”

It is no question that Alston’s teammates have her back. But as their prospective opponents get tougher, the Buckeyes need to find ways to perform at regular-season productivity with one of their top players at less than full strength.

The game plan, perhaps unsurprisingly, starts with sophomore guard Kelsey Mitchell.

Mitchell, the linchpin of the Buckeye offensive attack, has continued to elevate her scoring to the next level, dropping 27 points against Buffalo and 45 against West Virginia. Her efforts have been enough for OSU to keep marching onward while Alston has retreated to more of a role-player position.

“(Mitchell is) obviously very tough to defend,” said OSU coach Kevin McGuff. “She’s got speed and quickness and handles the ball like no one in college basketball.”

Mitchell uses her handles to quickly react to what the defense throws at her, and when she has enough open space to use her speed, she just might be the most lethal guard in the country.  

“Coach McGuff put an emphasis on me to play at a fast pace, and I know that coach is one of the guys who helps me keep going with the ball,” Mitchell said. “He tells me to go straight up and at the people. I think it helps our team as a whole as far as transitioning and driving.”

But with Alston out of the mix for certain periods of the game, opponents have the ability to focus solely on Mitchell.

A good example is the Big Ten semifinal when Michigan State laid a stomping on the Buckeyes. With Alston sidelined, the Spartans zeroed in on Mitchell, forcing others to step up. In that game, Ohio State didn’t.

With Alston continuing to be hampered by her wrist, opponents might use that game as a blueprint to defeating the Buckeyes. As a result, OSU has other players who will need to continue to step up.

Cooper has become the second scorer for the Buckeyes, averaging 16 points per game in the first two contests of the tournament.

Beyond Cooper, the X-factor who could decide how far the Buckeyes go in the tournament is sophomore forward Alexa Hart, who is primarily known for her rebounding and defensive talents.

Hart’s contributions tend to fall behind the shadows of Mitchell, Alston and Cooper, but if she can become another go-to option in the post, the Buckeyes will have a way to offset Alston’s scoring vacancy.

Furthermore, with the pressure that the Buckeyes apply on the defensive end, they’ve been able to engineer defense out of offense, especially with the speed of Mitchell and sophomore guard Asia Doss. Against West Virginia, OSU combined for a total of 40 points off Mountaineer turnovers.

“In the backcourt when I press, I think it was really effective down the stretch because I think fatigue settled in for both teams,” Mitchell said. “I think they tried to throw the ball a lot of different places, and we were able to get a lot of deflections, loose balls and 50-50 balls, which also helped us in the end.”

The havoc that the Buckeye backcourt causes makes them hard to stop once they get on a roll. McGuff and his squad will look to revolve its strategy around defense with Alston, the catalyst, spending a majority of the game on the bench.

OSU is scheduled to continue its tournament journey by heading west to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where it’s set to take on seventh-seeded Tennessee in the Sweet 16 on Friday. Tipoff time has yet to be announced.

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