The Ohio State Buckeyes began their 2022/23 season in a vastly different way than last year. Instead of a smaller conference opponent like Bucknell University, head coach Fred McGuff went the opposite direction, inviting the No. 4 ranked University of Tennessee Volunteers to Columbus. In front of a home crowd, Ohio State overcame a tough two quarters plus of shooting to come back in a big way, beating the Volunteers 87-75.
Before the tip, an initial surprise was the lineup. McGuff opted to go with the same five the Buckeyes started in their exhibition victory over Notre Dame College. Instead of returning guard Madison Greene in the lineup, McGuff went with a group of three forwards in Taylor Thierry, Cotie McMahon, and Rebeka Mikulášiková. It was in hopes of going up against a strong Tennessee team in the paint, led by center Tamari Key.
From the jump, the nerves were evident from the Buckeyes and Tennessee owned the inside game, courtesy of former Columbus, Ohio high school star Jordan Horston. The guard had three rebounds to start the quarter and scored the Vols first four points of the game.
However, both teams got into foul trouble early. For the Vols, Key earned two fouls early and went to the bench after 1:41 into the first quarter. For Ohio State, it was freshman McMahon who made it 3:20 into the first before chalking up two fouls herself.
Keeping the Buckeyes in the game early was guard Jacy Sheldon. Down four after two minutes, Sheldon showed why she was Big Ten All-Defense Team last season. Sheldon created two early steals, one from anticipating a pass and a second in the Buckeyes' full-court press.
Each time, Sheldon found a teammate on the other side of the change in possession. The Dublin, Ohio guard followed it up with a three, keeping the Scarlet & Gray within striking distance, down four points six minutes into the first quarter.
The size advantage of the Volunteers was evident right away. In the first quarter, the visitors out-rebounded the Buckeyes 15-6. Ohio State’s chance to neutralize the rebounding was by forcing turnovers and agitating Tennessee.
Ohio State won the turnover battle in the first quarter, only giving away possession three times compared to the Vols' seven. Of the Buckeyes' 16 first-quarter points, nine came off turnovers. At the end of the first 10 minutes, McGuff’s side trailed 22-16.
In the second quarter, the Buckeyes started to make more of an impact and spread the ball around. Getting over a rough first quarter was McMahon. With Ohio State down 12 under three minutes into the second, Sheldon forced a steal, one of her six in the first half, finding McMahon on the fast break.
McMahon followed that up with four more points, including a steal and lay-up on her own individual break. Greene followed the play up with a jumper of her own, cutting Tennessee’s lead down to five.
It was the closest the Buckeyes got to the Vols, but the home team had opportunities to make it more of a game. Ohio State shot only 50% from the free throw line, leaving seven points off the scoreboard. In addition, their three-point shooting wasn’t there, shooting 1-for-10 in the first half.
Tennessee’s ability to create opportunities and score kept the game looking like a yo-yo, with Ohio State getting close and then the Vols would push it back near double-digits. The visitors did it without Key on the court either, with the center only playing two minutes during the first 20 minutes of the game. The Buckeyes entered the locker room down 41-33.
Coming out of halftime, Key emerged from the bench to start the second half. Right away, the Vols found Key but after missing a lay-up under the basket, it was the Buckeyes who came out first. It was Thierry, who wasn't known for scoring in last year’s freshman debut, who put in the first two baskets, getting the Buckeyes within four early.
Then, it was Mikulášiková and Mikesell who took over. Mikesell started a game-changing swing in momentum by hitting her first three of the night, after four missed attempts, which seemed to get the entire team shooting.
Mikulášiková followed Mikesell’s three up with her own moves. The forward took six threes up until midway through the third. Mikulášiková found herself open at the top of the key and turned another three-point attempt into a run to the basket, getting Ohio State within three. Then, less than 30 seconds later, Mikulášiková hit her first shot from deep, tying the game at 49-49.
Tennessee did what they’d done for most of the game up to that point, and got back into the lead. The Vols extended their lead thanks to Horston, going up three with 2:40 left in the third. That’s when the unpredictable happened, the Buckeyes took the game over.
McGuff’s team responded with an 18-point run, with Mikesell hitting 12 to end the quarter. Ohio State’s defense held Tennessee to 13 points in the third quarter, with Mikesell scoring 15 alone in the same 10 minutes.
There was still one quarter left though. Sheldon and McMahon had the first six points in the fourth quarter, keeping the Buckeyes run going with two steals to start the final quarter.
The Buckeyes extended their lead to 15, but Tennessee is a top-five team for a reason. It was Horston who continued to lead the way for the visitors. With 5:43 left in the fourth, the Vols cut Ohio State’s whiplash lead down to eight.
However, the Buckeyes seemed like a different team once the shots started to fall. The guard trio of Sheldon, Mikesell, and Greene each hit a shot to get back up to a 17-point lead with three minutes remaining.
Tennessee made the game interesting, but not enough to make the big Schottenstein Center crowd nervous. Ohio State pulled off the upset 87-75.
Mikesell Heats Up
For much of the game, Mikesell and the Buckeyes were cold from everywhere on the court. Once Mikesell hit her first three in the third quarter, Ohio State went on a tear. The guard went into the half with only five points but ended with 25.
Depth on Display
Last year, McGuff and the Buckeyes didn’t venture too far into their bench whenever there were games on the line. Ohio State rotated three players in games to keep their best players on the court.
Against the Vols, the Buckeyes used 10 different players, even bringing in Heyvnne Bristow and transfers Eboni Walker and Emma Shumate in key moments. Ohio State played a high-intensity game to slow Tennessee down, which makes sense having so many players receive minutes, but if that continues throughout the entire year, it’ll make the Buckeyes a stronger side.
A deep Ohio State side ended the night with 37 points off 29 Tennessee turnovers.
Sheldon Leads the Way
The senior guard Sheldon didn't look like a player who was going to allow her team to lose. Sheldon almost hit her first triple-double of her career but did it unconventionally than most college stars. Instead of points, rebounds, and assists, Sheldon almost hit it in points, assists, and steals.
While Sheldon didn’t, she still had an impressive stat line for the Scarlet & Gray. She ended the night with 14 points, 8 steals, 7 assists, and 4 rebounds to boot. It’s a line that doesn’t do her night justice.
Sheldon led with physicality and court presence. Beating the Vols was a steep hill to climb, but Sheldon rose to the occasion.
Ohio State goes on the road for a spell. Their first stop is on the East Coast, against Boston College on Sunday, Nov. 13. Following that ACC/Big Ten match-up, the Scarlet and Gray head back to Ohio to face the other Ohio college, the Bobcats of Ohio University on Nov. 17.