The Ohio State Buckeyes women’s basketball team faced their toughest non-conference stretch of the regular season, this week in San Diego, California. Part of the San Diego Invitational, the Scarlet and Gray faced an unranked, but high-caliber, USF Bulls and then the No. 16 Oregon Ducks 24 hours later.
It was a tournament of different Buckeyes coming up in the clutch, a tough injury, and a pinch of revenge.
Here’s what stood out.
Taylor Mikesell Downs the Ducks
Surrounding the entire tournament was the potential to face guard Taylor Mikesell’s former team, the Pac-12’s Oregon Ducks. A week before they had the chance, players shared their desire to face the Ducks for Mikesell and repeated it after their overtime victory over the Bulls. For Mikesell herself, it goes back further than that.
“I think I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was one of the first games I circled on the schedule,” said Mikesell.
The guard also applauded her teammates for treating it like just another game, when it came time to perform on the court. In all honesty, though, it was really anything but another game.
Ohio State treated the Ducks more like a small non-conference side than a top-25-ranked team. In the first half, the Buckeyes grabbed onto an early lead and didn’t let it go. Into halftime, the Scarlet and Gray outscored Oregon 54-37, shooting six more shots than the Ducks and going 7-for-12 from deep.
Defensively, Oregon was held to 3-for-13 shooting from beyond the arc in the first half, and outside of a third quarter where the Buckeyes' shooting went cold, handled the talent of the Ducks for 30 of the 40 minutes of the game.
Mikesell played arguably her best all-around game of the season too. The guard scored 25 points and had five rebounds and six assists, earning a +/- of +17.
What made the performance even more special for Ohio State was when it hit. Entering Wednesday, Mikesell had three tough games, all scoring under her season average and hitting only 24% of her shots from the field. Wednesday Mikesell went 10-for-13.
Hardly just “another game” for the guard.
Madison Greene’s Injury
Although the extent of guard Madison Greene’s injury is not yet known, judging from the guard and team’s reactions it's not a good situation. Greene went to the court late in the fourth quarter of Tuesday’s game against USF. That elicited strong emotions from her teammates, visibly shaken on the court and on the bench.
Last season, Greene missed the entire championship year due to a knee injury sustained in the week leading up to the start of the regular season. The guard’s fought hard this season, picking up the starting point guard role that she had prior to the injury, due to Jacy Sheldon’s lower leg injury leaving her out of games.
With three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter Tuesday, plus a bonus overtime period, Ohio State fought back, and Greene was part of the motivation.
“No player wants to see their teammate go down like that, especially Madison. ” said forward Cotie McMahon following Tuesday’s win. “We had no choice but to finish the game for her. No matter what it took we were going to do it. No matter what.”
To head coach Kevin McGuff, it was the bigger story Wednesday than any focus on Mikesell and getting vengeance from what seemed like a tough environment in Oregon.
“The bigger story is we took a tough injury with Madison last night and I was just proud of how our team showed up,” said McGuff. “The resilience they showed and really fought through tough adversity.”
Rikki Harris on Point
Down both starting point guards, and facing a consistently top team in the No. 16 Oregon Ducks who are led by outstanding guard Te-Hina Paopao, meant a potential nightmare for the Buckeyes.
After all, they don’t have any regular point guards in the rotation who coach McGuff is likely to use. That meant Rikki Harris, who hadn’t played point guard consistently since high school, stepped in to see what she could do to facilitate the Buckeyes' offense.
She did ok.
Harris hit her career assist record, with eight. All of those came in the first half. She showed versatility and was key in Ohio State’s first-half surge.
“Usually when you lose your point guard the first thing to go is your offensive execution,” said McGuff following Wednesday’s win. “Rikki made sure we kept the ball moving and that we generated great shots. I thought she did an outstanding job.”
Defensively, Harris and the Buckeyes also forced an outlier of a poor performance from Paopao. Even though the guard had 17 points, Paopao entered Wednesday with the top assist/turnover ratio in the country and only gave the ball up nine times in the Ducks' first 11 games.
Against the Buckeyes, Paopao had eight turnovers. Outside of the third quarter, Oregon never seemed to get their scoring on a consistent clip. Aside from when the Ducks cut their deficit down to seven in the third quarter, had trouble breaking through the Ohio State defense.
Taylor Thierry a Quiet Foundation
Across the two games, the lone piece of consistency was forward Taylor Thierry. Although she was outshined by 30 points from McMahon in game one and big nights by Mikesell and forward Rebeka Mikulášiková in game two, Thierry had two strong games.
In game one, Thierry had 17 points and six assists, with no turnovers. In overtime, Thierry grabbed an offensive rebound, a defensive rebound, an assist, and the most important basket of the game, the one that won it.
After forward Eboni Walker confidently blocked guard, and AAC Preseason Player of the Year, Elena Tsineke’s shot away, McMahon found Thierry running ahead of the USF defense. Thierry hit the layup, sending the bench into a frenzy.
Thierry scored 14 with eight rebounds in game two, shooting 15-for-21 across the two games overall. Also, the Cleveland, Ohioan hit another wide-open three, because defenses seem to think the talented forward/guard flex can’t hit a shot from deep.
Defensive Ups and Downs
Winning two games in a row, against stiff competition, is great but there are moments Ohio State can learn from across the two days. The first is defending in the paint. Against USF and 6-foot-4 forward Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu, the Buckeyes struggled.
Fankam Mendjiadeu had 34 points and 17 rebounds against the Scarlet & Gray. Of those 34, 12 came from the free-throw line. After making players like Tennessee center Tamari Key ineffective this season, Fankam Mendjiadeu garnered a lot of attention.
When the Cameroonian got the ball in the paint, her size and ability led to made shot after made shot. Also, seven of her 17 rebounds were on offense, meaning the Buckeyes couldn’t challenge the big even when they forced USF to miss a shot.
The problem for Ohio State was fouling. Mikulášiková and Harris each fouled out going up against the forward. While the Buckeyes didn’t seem to agree with the number of whistles, playing through them forced more substitutions in key moments and free points for the Bulls.
It wasn’t all bad defensively though. On Wednesday, the Buckeyes’ half-court defense had a marked improvement against the Ducks. Ohio State had hands in the faces of shooters and didn’t allow too many open looks. Even when the Buckeyes went cold, scoring five points in the third quarter, McGuff’s side held Oregon to their worst shooting quarter of the game, scoring 12 points.
There were still some good performances on the Oregon roster. Freshman forward Grace VanSlooten put 29 points on top of Paopao’s 17 points, but the remaining three starters for Oregon scored 13 combined points. The Ducks’ bench scored eight total.
Oregon’s 6-foot-8 center Phillipina Kyei had none of those 13 starter points outside of the Ducks' dynamic duo, but still grabbed 10 rebounds.
Destination Basketball Dud
There’s been a lot made about the Destination Basketball Las Vegas Invitational where a player had to wait 40 minutes for medical attention, and the Indiana Hoosiers played in a glorified conference room at The Mirage hotel.
The same group put on the San Diego Invitational and even the commentators weren’t too thrilled with the setup. On the air, they mentioned how the event wasn’t really made for live fans. Production of the stream, which was on relatively obscure Flosports, featured no replays for in-arena fans and only replayed moments on the stream at halftime.
Also, the commentary team noticed there were no possession arrows letting the referees know who had possession, requiring the officials and broadcast staff to keep track of fouls and possession on their own.
While it didn’t threaten the safety of the players, overall it felt minor league. Add to the fact that only Land-Grant Holy Land made time to talk with the coach and players after the top-25 matchup and it was a night that organizers and media overall could have paid more attention.