After the Ohio State Buckeyes beat the LSU Tigers on their homecourt, the word surrounding the 79-64 victory was “upset”. Strictly looking at the seeding, sure. The Scarlet & Gray were in the No. 6 seed, while head coach Kim Mulkey’s Tigers sat at No. 3. Ask the players, and upset isn’t a part of it.
“I think March is for everybody,” said guard Kateri Poole. “The person that comes out from the beginning, coming off the plane, is the person that takes it all. I think we’re a championship team, a national championship team.”
It’s that mentality – that confidence – that has the Buckeyes one win away from their first trip to the Elite Eight since 1993.
Monday’s victory in Baton Rouge was evidence of an Ohio State team firing on all cylinders. Playing in a hostile environment, which Poole added is something she loved and was looking forward to doing, isn’t going to be part of the tournament at the Tacoma, Washington regional.
For the first time in this tournament, there is no home team. That leaves one less factor in preparation, but the opponent doesn’t get any easier. Welcoming the Buckeyes are the Big 12 tournament champions, the Texas Longhorns. A Texas team that hasn’t lost a game since Feb. 6.
“We played one of our best basketball games at the right time,” said head coach Kevin McGuff about the victory against LSU. “Hopefully that gives them confidence as we prepare for this very, very talented and well-coached Texas team.”
They’re led by 2018 Naismith Women’s Basketball Coach of the Year Vic Schaefer. The former Sam Houston State and Mississippi State coach has made it to at least the Sweet 16 in the last six editions of the NCAA Tournament, including two trips to the championship game in 2017 and 2018, with Mississippi.
Schaefer’s team brings a different defensive look than the Buckeyes have seen, a baseline-to-baseline one-on-one defensive press. Texas is 12th in the nation at causing turnovers and hold opposing offenses to 28% shooting from three.
Offensively, they’re led by Big 12 Freshman of the Year Rori Harmon. The Texas-native leads the team in assists (171), assists (85), and second in points per game (11.4). Around Harmon are experienced players who grab rebounds, force turnovers, and score.
It’s a game that requires something extra for the Buckeyes.
“With their defense, the biggest thing for us is to stay poised and stay organized,” said McGuff. “[Against LSU] We had a little bit of difficulties, but I think for the most part Jacy [Sheldon], Taylor [Mikesell], and Braxtin [Miller] just had the poise and organization that was needed to keep our team under control and make sure we didn’t turn the ball over.”
Ohio State, like Texas, is also a talented team. Sheldon and Mikesell’s names have been littered throughout postseason awards talk in and out of the B1G. In the NCAA Tournament, Sheldon’s especially shown that she’s not a local Columbus-area kid that’s rising above her potential. She’s somebody that’s still working to reach it and frustrating opponents along the way.
For McGuff, when asked about the talent level of this team compared to teams in the past, he doesn’t know if they’re the most talented in his time in Columbus. Unsure if they’re on the same talent level as All-American Kelsey Mitchell’s Buckeyes. The now WNBA star led the Buckeyes to two straight Sweet 16 appearances in 2016 and 2017.
That doesn’t mean that McGuff doesn’t think this team has talent. Far from it. What this team has is a consistency across the roster that McGuff hasn’t seen in his tenure as Ohio State’s head coach. While Sheldon and Mikesell stretch far above their teammates in putting points on the board, the key role-players change from game to game.
In one game, graduate senior forward Tanaya Beacham might come out and drop 18 points. Forward Rebeka Mikulasikova will get a double-double. Guard Rikki Harris would come out and control the game on defense. It’s these performances that have helped get Ohio State to where they’re at today.
There is one area where McGuff does puts the Buckeyes above the rest.
“I would tell you, and I say this with great reverence to this team, this has been one of the most enjoyable seasons I’ve ever had in 20 years as a head coach,” said McGuff. “This is the best chemistry that we’ve had with a team that I’ve had a chance to coach at Ohio State.”
Friday, the Scarlet & Gray bring that chemistry, and determination to the Longhorns. On paper, it’s a game that looks like it’ll require another “upset.”