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Ohio State women’s basketball team full of question marks ahead of NCAA tournament

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Ohio State coaches Mark Mitchell (left) and Kevin McGuff (right) watch OSU's 82-63 loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament. Credit: Kevin Stankiewicz | Asst. Sports Editor

Ohio State coaches Mark Mitchell (left) and Kevin McGuff (right) watch OSU’s 82-63 loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament.
Credit: Kevin Stankiewicz | Asst. Sports Editor

Not too long ago, the Ohio State women’s basketball team was a unit with all the answers.

OSU had won 11 straight games, the outright Big Ten regular-season title was within its grip and at least a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament was nearly a lock, with a top seed a realistic proposal.

Now, just a couple of weeks after those extremely positive outcomes of coach Kevin McGuff’s third season in Columbus seemed inevitable, all of those achievements have been entirely wiped out.

With the Buckeyes losing three of their last four games, including an embarrassing 82-63 loss to Michigan State in the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament, the one thing OSU needs before the NCAA tournament begins is what it had an abundance of when it last played in Columbus: an answer.

OSU doesn’t have an answer as to what seed it will be when the NCAA tournament begins. It doesn’t have an answer as to how it came up empty-handed in the Big Ten regular-season title despite having a one-game lead with two games left to play. And it doesn’t have an answer as to what happened to one of the best offenses in the nation.

The Buckeyes, who average 86.7 points per game, the third most in the country, had a season-low 20 points at the half against Michigan State in a game they trailed in by as many as 36 points.

After the game, senior guard Cait Craft chalked much of that up to the ineffectiveness of fellow senior guard Ameryst Alston, who was held back by a sprained right wrist and didn’t score, but said there were still concerns about the way the team played as a whole.

“Not having Ameryst hurt a little bit, but at the end of the day, we as a team didn’t come ready to play really until the last quarter,” Craft said. “Not having her does hurt, but it shouldn’t have been that detrimental to us. And I think we let that get in the way more than it should have, obviously.”

McGuff said he doesn’t know what Alston’s status will be moving forward after the game, noting only the diagnosis of her injury and that he “hopes” she will be able to accelerate through her rehab and be good to go for the NCAA tournament.

But missing Alston’s first-team All-Big Ten production was only a steep section of the mountain the Buckeyes were sliding down, not the point of departure from the top.

The night before against Rutgers, in which Alston was perfectly healthy until the closing minutes, the Buckeyes only put up 26 points on the scoreboard at the half. They ended up winning the game 73-58 behind sophomore guard Kelsey Mitchell’s tournament-record 43 points, but, especially after losing their previous two games, the concerns were already in the air before the seismic semifinal debacle.

A lot of the Buckeyes’ issues in the tournament were inexplicable, such as junior Shayla Cooper, a steady contributor off the bench throughout the year, suddenly being largely absent from the offense.

Cooper averaged 13.5 points and 8.4 rebounds per game during the season, but against Rutgers she put up seven points on 2-of-10 shooting, and the next night she had just two points on 1-of-5 shooting through three quarters, including a second period absent from the floor.

She ended up finishing off the night strong with 14 points in the garbage-time fourth quarter, hitting all six shot attempts. But Cooper has been one of the Buckeyes’ most valuable players all season long, and the need for her to step up inflated with Alston physically unable to shoot. Instead, she was nowhere to be found.

After the Michigan State game, McGuff didn’t have an explanation or assessment for the sorry performance. He simply didn’t have an answer.

“It didn’t have anything to do with effort or competitiveness,” McGuff said. “We have to learn from tonight that we’re going to hit some adversity again. I don’t know what it will be. Maybe it will be foul trouble, something. And how we react to it is going to determine everything.”

Two weeks ago, OSU was a team that many were pegging as a Final Four contender. It had already beaten Maryland twice — the only two in-conference losses the Terrapins have had since joining the Big Ten — and had lost to powerhouses South Carolina and Notre Dame on the road by a combined 11 points.

But now, the Buckeyes are trying to rebuild from the ground up with the NCAA tournament a week and a half away — trying to understand when it all turned around.

“That’s the great thing about college basketball, you get a chance to tip it up again here before too long,” McGuff said. “And I think we have a great opportunity ahead of us. We just have to get back to the gym and kind of get back to being who we are.”

The Buckeyes will learn their tournament seeding and opponent on Monday, and whether their first-round game will be set for March 18 or 19.

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