Ohio State women's basketball has been hearing the hype all offseason. On paper, this could be the best team the program has put on the court in at least a decade, but a brutal opening schedule that pits the Buckeyes against the top two teams in the country in the first two games would make certain that any success would be hard-earned.
Head coach Kevin McGuff watched his squad stand toe-to-toe against No. 2 South Carolina on Friday night, but ultimately fall short. Despite 59 combined points from the lethal backcourt combo of Kelsey Mitchell and Ameryst Alston, the Gamecocks pulled out an 88-80 win.
The Buckeyes have had no time to lament letting the opener slip away, as they take the court at Value City Arena for the first time this season on Monday night against the juggernaut that is the University of Connecticut. For the past twenty years, UConn has been the gold standard of women's college basketball, winning 10 national titles, going to 16 Final Fours, and amassing five perfect seasons under head coach Geno Auriemma.
The Huskies, who will be tipping off their season in Columbus riding a 37-game winning streak, are the three-time defending national champions (2013, 2014, 2015), having lost just five times total over that span. With a pair of preseason first-team All-Americans in seniors Breanna Stewart and Moriah Jefferson, UConn is going to provide a stout roadblock to Ohio State's first victory of the year.
Numbers to know
Connecticut has lost just once in the past two seasons, a two-point overtime defeat against Stanford in the second game of the 2014-15 campaign. During the current 37-game winning streak, the closest any opponent has come to the Huskies was ten points, achieved by Notre Dame in the national title game. Ohio State lost to UConn in the last head-to-head matchup, 70-49, back on December 1, 2013.
Mitchell and Alston accounted for 74 percent of the Buckeyes' points in the opener against South Carolina. While they may be the most-feared scoring tandem in the country, Ohio State needs to get more production from the rest of its team. McGuff's three other starters - Alexa Hart, Shayla Cooper, and Cait Craft - combined to shoot just 4-25 from the floor against the Gamecocks, accounting for a mere 11 points. If the scarlet and gray hopes to do the improbable on Monday night, the supporting cast must step up in a big way.
Cast of Characters
Mitchell could probably be featured in every article written about this team all season long, and with good reason. After leading the country in scoring as a freshman a season ago and racking up just about all of the accolades in the preseason, the Cincinnati native was better than advertised against South Carolina. Mitchell scored 36 points, which included 4-9 from deep and 12-13 from the free throw line. She'll need to be just as solid against the Huskies if the Buckeyes hope to pull off the upset.
Cooper was a beast on the boards against the Gamecocks, pulling down a game-high 15 rebounds. But the redshirt junior transfer from Georgetown missed 15 of the 17 shots she took, scoring just 4 points. With the size and depth Connecticut possesses in the frontcourt, Cooper will be counted on to be just as relentless in the paint, but a better shooting percentage would be hugely helpful.
You can search high and low, but you won't find a more highly-decorated player in all of college basketball this season than Stewart. The 6'4" forward from North Syracuse, New York was a unanimous first-team All-American last season, and took home AP National Player of the Year and the Wooden Award after averaging 17.6 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. Ohio State's bigs will have their hands full trying to keep Stewart in check.
While Stewart grabs a majority of the hype, Jefferson is the engine that makes the Huskies go. A second-team AP All-American last season, the Texas native won the Nancy Lieberman award as the top point guard in the country. Jefferson scored 12.4 points and dished out just under 5 assists per game as a junior.