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Competitive character and the Ohio State Buckeyes women’s basketball team

It’s a common phrase used by coach and players alike, and you know it when you see it.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Joseph Scheller/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

The No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes women’s basketball team is 17-0 — their best start to a season in program history. Sunday, the Scarlet & Gray added that 17th win, but it was an uphill climb. Pushing the Buckeyes to the win is what head coach Kevin McGuff calls “competitive character,” and even if the phrase is new, you know it when you see it with Ohio State.

Like many other games this season, the Buckeyes overcame a deficit to earn a marquee 87-81 conference win. This time it was a 17-point deficit with less than seven minutes remaining in the third quarter against a tough Illinois Fighting Illini team.

Ohio State flipped a proverbial switch Sunday, with forward Cotie McMahon going on a seven-point run on her own, when the Buckeyes went down 17 points with 6:56 remaining in the third quarter. That’s competitive character.

Forward/guard combo Taylor Thierry led everyone on the floor in rebounding in the third quarter, plus she added two steals and four points — two from the high-pressured free throw line. A key performance during a 25-8 run erasing the Illini’s lead in 4:40 of game time. That’s competitive character.

Substitute guard Hevynne Bristow grabbed eight rebounds in only 18 minutes on the court, and five of those came in the fourth quarter. Once again, competitive character. So what is it exactly?

“Competing at a level we know we’re capable of and executing at a level we know we’re capable of,” said coach McGuff. “When we show how good we can be and we sustain it to me that’s great competitive character. When we don’t sustain it, because either mentally we’re not locked in or we’re not playing as hard, that’s not.”

This season, the Buckeyes have had competitive character in droves. Ohio State’s caused fits for opposing teams with their full court defense, and pushed big leads against teams on the other side of the scorer’s table.

At different points in the season, the Scarlet & Gray have led the nation in scoring per game, steals per game and scoring margin. Sustaining those is no easy task. Especially considering the schedule McGuff put together for Ohio State this year facing three ranked teams, plus a tough unranked USF Bulls before Big Ten play got going at the end of December.

Even so, for all the impressive quarters for Ohio State, there have been equally less impressive alter egos. A Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde situation, with Dr. Jekyl coming out on top time and time again.

Sunday, it was a second quarter where Illinois beat the home side in just about everything. The Fighting Illini scored 25 points on 73.3% shooting, mostly from forward Kendall Bostic who had eight in the quarter on her way to a 27-point, 15-rebound, performance. Illinois shot 33.3% better before going into the halftime locker room.

Illinois also out-rebounded, out-assisted, out-stole and out-blocked in the second quarter. The lone area where the Buckeyes had more was turnovers. Not the competitive character expected from coach McGuff. The players know what it looks like, and know when they’re not living up to it.

“We came out and put a lot more pressure on them in the third quarter,” said guard Taylor Mikesell who led Ohio State with 31 points in the win. “And kind of got a momentum shift and more energy swing our way and then got some shots to fall.”

Other words used for competitive character might be intensity or energy, but when it's about this Ohio State Buckeyes team its more. The word character means its something embedded inside of the person. Part of who they are.

That character pushed Ohio State late in the third, when they earned their first lead since the beginning of the first quarter. In the fourth, guard Rikki Harris hit a three to start the scoring and the Buckeyes never looked back, leading the rest of the way.

After the game, Mikesell also cited bringing that sense of urgency into earlier parts of the game. It was a post-game press conference not fitting of an impressive win against an Illinois team on an upward trajectory. Instead, it felt like the numbness that comes after a loss.

“I don’t know, it’s really frustrating,” said McGuff. “I just told them in the locker room “if I was asking you to do something that you couldn’t do, ok that’d be one thing. But I’m just asking you to do what we just did. We’ve proven time and time again, when we play the right way and really stick to our identity, good things happen.’”

Good things are happening. Like for instance, not losing a game all season and beating four ranked teams in the process, plus two unranked foes who pushed the Buckeyes to the brink. The competitive character is there, now its about McGuff and the Scarlet & Gray showing it for four quarters.