The final day of the 2022 calendar features not one but two Ohio State athletic events that will create ripple effects throughout respective sports. While one is a football game in Atlanta, Georgia with “win or go home” implications, the other is the No. 3 team in the country versus the No. 14 side. It’s the Ohio State women’s basketball team against the Michigan Wolverines.
Win and the Buckeyes maintain not only their ranking but their spot atop the early Big Ten standings and their place as the only remaining undefeated team in the conference. Lose and Michigan gets the bragging rights plus pushes their streak against Ohio State to four games.
The Buckeyes and Wolverines need little introduction for rivalries’ sake, but both teams are sides that’ve changed over the past year.
For Michigan, their biggest difference is the departure of forward Naz Hillmon. The 2021 Big Ten Player of the Year and four-time All-American left the Wolverines with a legacy that propelled Michigan to their best basketball in program history.
Hillmon left Michigan averaging 18.7 points and 8.9 rebounds pre-game. In the 2020-21 season where she won conference Player of the Year, Hillmon averaged a double-double with 23.9 points and 11.4 rebounds per game.
Her departure meant that Michigan could have taken a dive without their star, but this season they’ve overcome Hillmon’s move to the WNBA. Michigan is 12-1 coming to Columbus on Saturday, with a lone slip-up in an upset defeat against the Toledo Rockets.
Outside of their fall to some MACtion, the Wolverines have two wins against top-25 sides, including a standout 76-68 win over the North Carolina Tar Heels. Leading the way in that game and on the season is guard Leigha Brown.
Brown played three years at Nebraska, winning B1G Sixth Player of the Year and in the last two years, she’s come on strong for Michigan.
The Indiana native is a guard who specializes in attacking the basket and shooting midrange. Brown is third on the Wolverines in scoring, averaging 15.3 points per game, but she has a knack for coming on strong against the toughest opponents.
Against the USF Bulls, then No. 22 Baylor Bears, and against then No. 6 North Carolina, Brown scored 23, 26, and 25 points respectively. As the spotlight gets brighter, so does Brown’s play, but she’s not alone.
Other players to watch for the Wolverines are guard Laila Phelia and forward Emily Kiser. Phelia, a sophomore out of Cincinnati, Ohio, started only 14 of Michigan’s 29 games last season, but this year she’s shown how even one year of NCAA basketball under their belt can help a player grow.
Phelia’s second on the Maize and Blue in scoring, averaging 16.6 points and shooting 45.2% from deep. An area where she can be exploited though is that youth, should Ohio State’s press get into form in the game, with Phelia giving the ball away 32 times this season.
In terms of replacing Hillmon, there’s Kiser. Last season, next to Hillmon, Kiser played a more subdued role, scoring less than 10 points per game but playing strong on the boards. This year, Kiser’s improved that scoring, and opponents no longer see a gap in that presence in the paint role for Michigan.
This season, Ohio State started the year playing bigs well. In the campaign opener against Tennessee, the Buckeyes held center Tamari Key to eight points and three rebounds. In the next game against Boston College sophomore Maria Gakdeng, the Scarlet and Gray held her to under her season average in rebounds, grabbing only five.
However, when foul trouble hits Ohio State, things change. In last week’s San Diego Invitational, the Buckeyes were dominated by USF Bulls forward Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu. The Cameroonian lit up Ohio State with 34 points and 17 rebounds, with Buckeyes’ forward Rebeka Mikulášiková and guard Rikki Harris both fouling out.
If the Scarlet and Gray can avoid hearing the referee’s whistle too often, they’ll have a better chance at slowing down Kiser.
Overall, Michigan is a team that will keep the game in the half-court, meaning Ohio State’s half-court defense needs to be on point. There’s a reason Michigan head coach Kim Barnes Arico celebrated 500 career wins Thursday, after beating the Nebraska Cornhuskers — she coaches a disciplined, high-performing, team.
- Forward Taylor Thierry still leads the nation in FG%, hitting 73% of her shots.
- Ohio State’s rebounding margin is .6.
- Rikki Harris leads the Buckeyes' healthy players with 40 assists.
- Forward Emily Kiser is third in the conference averaging 18.4 ppg.
- Guard Laila Phelia leads the Wolverines in blocks with 12.
- Michigan’s defense leads the Big Ten, holding opponents to an average of 57.2 ppg.
The score prediction below says Michigan wins a close game but this one can go either way. Michigan had the tiebreaker because of a healthy and lethal Brown, but if Ohio State hits its shots it's going to be a tough day for the Maize and Blue.
Saturday’s game will be close regardless, with Mikesell meeting the gravity of the moment and playing one of her best games with the Scarlet and Gray.
Ohio State won’t have an answer for Kiser, but slowing down two of the Wolverines’ three threats will keep the game exciting. It’s going to come down to the final moments of the game, and the winner will show how close the Buckeyes really are to being at the top of the Big Ten.
How to Watch
Date: Saturday, Dec. 31, 2022
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Where: Covelli Center, Columbus, Ohio
Television: Big Ten Network
Stream: FOX Sports with Big Ten Network subscription
LGHL Prediction: 78-76 Michigan Wolverines
Sell Out at Covelli
The Schottenstein Center isn’t available Saturday, but it’s probably for the best. The Buckeyes move down the street to a venue that only holds 3,700, but it’s a story of quality versus quantity.
The Covelli Center is loud, and formidable to opponents. It’ll feel like the crowd is on the court, and the lower ceiling means that sound is amplified easier. To make matters better in terms of the home-court advantage, on Friday the Ohio State University announced the game will be a sellout.
While it isn’t Taylor Swift-level ticket selling, it’s a sign that people want to watch the No. 3 team in the country play live.
Now if only fans came out to the Schottenstein Center for the women’s team like they do the unranked men’s team.