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How Ohio State women’s basketball turned a season weakness into a strength to earn Sweet Sixteen bid

Ohio State’s struggled against a certain type of team throughout the season, but on Monday they flipped the script.

NCAA Womens Basketball: NCAA Tournament - Second Round-Ohio St. at Louisiana State Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

It’s easy to look at a game in hindsight and say that one side dominated the other. The end result can skew a performance in the direction of the winning side. With the Ohio State Buckeyes victory over the LSU Tigers, it was as dominant during the game as it looks on the scoresheet.

Ohio State entered the Pete Maravich Assembly Center as 4.5-point underdogs to the LSU Tigers for good reason. Although the Buckeyes were Big Ten regular-season co-champions, their few losses on the year featured teams with a dominant presence in the paint.

In two games against Naz Hillmon and the Michigan Wolverines, the Scarlet and Gray were outrebounded 91 to 55. In a Dec. 12 matchup against the Indiana Hoosiers, forward Mackenzie Holmes scored 30 points and added seven rebounds in a 20-point defeat for the Buckeyes.

Overall, opponents average 5.7 more rebounds per game than the Buckeyes’ 34.8. In Ohio State’s conference schedule, they were out-rebounded in 12 of 18 contests.

Entering Monday night’s matchup, they faced a formidable duo in center Faustine Aifuwa and forward Autumn Newby. Against Jackson State in the first round of the tournament, Aifuwa scored 17 points and grabbed 14 boards. Newby averaged 6.2 points and 8.1 rebounds on the season. Combined, the two graduate seniors had been hard to beat.

To combat this, Buckeyes’ head coach Kevin McGuff shared a message pregame that showed on the court.

“I told them about five times yesterday, told them at shoot-around today, told them before the game, if we were going to win the game we were going to have to fight like — excuse my French — fight like hell on every possession when the shot went up to get the ball back,” said McGuff.

That’s exactly what Ohio State did on the court. In the first quarter, all but one of the Buckeyes had a rebound. Ohio State found space, boxed out in the paint, and grabbed 13 rebounds to LSU’s 11. Aifuwa and Newby combined for just four rebounds to start the game.

And for OSU, those rebounds turned into points. Of the Buckeyes' eight made shots in the first quarter, five were on the fast break. From the 3:29-mark of the first quarter, the Buckeyes took the lead and never gave it up.

Outside of one standout second quarter on the boards for the Tigers, a smaller Buckeye team thwarted a bigger and more experienced LSU. In the second half, only four Tigers had a rebound. On the Buckeyes side? Everybody was in the paint.

The battle wasn’t lost on LSU head coach Kim Mulkey either.

“They have been out-rebounded all year if you look at the stats,” said Mulkey when asked about what contributed to the Tigers’ defeat. “And I didn’t think that we dominated at the post rebounding and in a lot of ways that could have really helped us.”

On the Tigers roster, Aifuwa was held to only two points and six rebounds. Newby outperformed the center with five points and 10 rebounds. Paling in comparison to their usual performances in big-game environments.

From those 34 defensive rebounds, the ball went to a Buckeye offense that eventually shifted away from an early focus on the fast break. Once a lead was established, the Scarlet and Gray turned rebounds into holding onto possession. Ohio State led in the game for over 34 of the game’s 40 minutes.

Despite the crowd noise — and the slight underdog status — Ohio State out-rebounded the home side 43 to 36. Every Buckeye had at least two, with senior forward Braxtin Miller leading the team with nine. Sophomore guard Rikki Harris wasn’t far behind with eight of her own.

Now, the Buckeyes regroup and try to put out a similar performance against the Texas Longhorns. Ohio State and the Big 12 Tournament Champions tip-off in Spokane, Washington on Friday. Tipoff is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. ET.