The slump that hit Ohio State women's basketball in the final week of the regular season hung around the team in the first half of its first game in the Big Ten tournament on Friday. But the Buckeyes overcame a woeful start to beat Rutgers 73-58 on the back of a tourney single-game record 43 points by sophomore Kelsey Mitchell.
"She an unbelievable player," head coach Kevin McGuff said of Mitchell after the game. "She really put us on her back in the second half."
Mitchell, a first-team All-Big Ten selection this week, shot 15-for-24 from the floor, including 8-for-13 from three-point range in breaking former Ohio State standout Jantel Lavender's previous conference scoring mark.
"I just want to win. I know how important it is to our team and to me and to the Ohio State family to try to make things happen for this program," Mitchell said when asked about the record.
A poor shooting start put the Buckeyes behind early, but Mitchell and solid defense against a Scarlet Knights' attack that saw two players score all but seven of their team's points was enough to survive and advance.
Ohio State missed its first six shots from the floor and made just one of its first 11 despite getting quality looks. Rutgers used that ice-cold start to jump out to a 10-2 lead in the game's first five minutes. Junior Tyler Scaife put up eight quick points in that span for the Scarlet Knights.
Mitchell, the fourth-leading scorer in the country, began her night 0-for-4 from the floor, but got consecutive three-point shots to fall to cut the lead to 12-10.
Mitchell and senior Ameryst Alston, the second-leading scoring duo in the country, shot a paltry 3-for-17 (17.6 percent) in the first ten minutes. Rutgers turned it over six times in the quarter, but Ohio State was 4-for-23 (17.4 percent) from the floor, and the Scarlet Knights took a 14-10 lead into the second frame.
Senior Kahleah Copper finished the first quarter strong with six points, and got Rutgers off to a good start in the second with a make from beyond the arc and an elbow jumper for a 19-10 lead.
Mitchell scored on a jumper and a dribble drive layup, then found Alston open for a corner three in transition, and the Buckeyes trimmed the lead to 21-17 after four minutes. When Mitchell splashed another pair of threes, the score was tied 23-23.
An Ohio State scoring drought lasting over three minutes allowed Scaife and the Scarlet Knights to push the lead back out to 31-25. The Little Rock, Arkansas native finished the half with a team-high 16 points en route to a 31-26 lead. Copper, who had two double-doubles against the Buckeyes in the regular season, finished with 13 points and seven rebounds.
The Ohio State offense was Mitchell and little else. The guard from Cincinnati scored 18 points on 7-for-15 shooting, including 4-for-9 from three. The Buckeyes got just three field goals in the first twenty minutes from the rest of the team.
Scaife continued to attack after the intermission, starting Rutgers out with an and-one, but Ohio State showed much better patience in running its offense. Alston got a layup after good ball rotation, Mitchell made a pair of free throws, and sophomore Asia Doss knocked down a three to cut the lead to 34-33.
A Mitchell three after a Scarlet Knights' turnover gave the Buckeyes their first lead at 36-34. A 10-0 run was capped off by two free throws from Doss for a 38-34 lead.
Mitchell put her head down and got to the rim again for an old-fashioned three-point play, and on the next possession, Alston did exactly the same as Ohio State pulled out to a 44-36 lead at the midway point in the quarter.
The full court pressure being employed by the Buckeyes was extremely effective as Rutgers turned it over five more times and was held to just four field goals and 11 points in the third quarter. Mitchell meanwhile scored 12 points in the frame as Ohio State headed to the final ten minutes with a 52-42 lead.
The Scarlet Knights scored six quick points to start the fourth quarter, but Mitchell just continued to perform. A dribble-drive layup, a deep three from the top of the arc, and a step-back jumper restored the lead to 59-48.
Alston extended the lead to 61-48 with a layup, but on the ensuing defensive possession, seemed to sustain an injury to her right wrist while diving after a loose ball and getting rolled up on by Copper. The Buckeye captain was taken directly to the locker room, and no word on her condition was provided as of this writing, though she appeared on the bench with a heavy ice bag at the end of the game.
After that low point, Mitchell broke the Big Ten tournament single-game scoring record with her eighth three-pointer of the night, and Ohio State rolled from there.
Scaife scored 26 to lead Rutgers, while Copper added her third double-double of the season against the Buckeyes with 25 points and 12 rebounds.
Ohio State will play in Saturday's second semifinal game against the winner of Friday's nightcap between Michigan State and Purdue. The game tips off approximately 25 minutes following the semifinal matchup between Maryland and Northwestern, which begins at 3:00 p.m. ET.