Before the Ohio State women’s basketball team and Tennessee Volunteers could even make it to the tip off Sunday, there were already eyes firmly on the court. All looking for the status of Vols star forward Rickea Jackson. Missing five games in a row with a lower leg injury, Jackson didn’t warm up with Tennessee and sat for a sixth game in a row.
Questions linger on what difference Jackson would have made for the Vols, with the Buckeyes taking the away win, its first in program history against Tennessee on Rocky Top, in a 78-58 victory.
Ohio State was the fourth ranked opponent in a row for the Vols, and it looked like Tennessee went through the wringer early on. From the jump, the Buckeyes found success in the paint and perimeter. Guard Celeste Taylor and forward Cotie McMahon had duplicate drives to the paint to start the scoring, the second coming off the first turnover created by the Buckeyes on the day.
The Buckeyes hoped to go strong on defense like it did last year to start the 22-23 season, where Ohio State forced 29 turnovers against the Volunteers.
What didn’t work for the scarlet and gray was shooting deep. Tennessee’s been susceptible to the three-point shot so far this season, but halfway through the first quarter Ohio State was 1-for-3.
In the first, it was dueling scoring runs for each side. Ohio State went on an 11-point run, pushing an early 13-point lead. It didn't last however, with a Vol coming back from injury to make an immediate impact, and it wasn't Jackson.
Last season, center Tamari Key had the makings of an All-American season but went to the bench after only nine games. Blood clot concerns made Key a medical scratch for the Vols. Seeing Key back on the court Sunday was a feel-good story but didn’t make Ohio State feel so good.
Tennessee, with Key, went on an 8-0 run to end the quarter, with Ohio State leading 20-15. The Buckeyes were 8-for-11 shooting until the end of its run, but ended the quarter missing its final eight shots.
Quiet to start the game was forward/guard hybrid Taylor Thierry. It took 13 minutes for the forward to register a shot, that she didn’t make. It was a testament to the work getting done by the Tennessee defense. Thierry makes a lot of her points off her teammates finding her in the paint.
Key didn’t help. The size and physicality of the center gave the other four Tennessee Vols room to move and play more one-on-one against the Buckeyes’ shooters. In seven appearances off the bench though, Key hasn’t played more than seven minutes. Once Key went to the bench in the second quarter, Ohio State showed improvement.
Thankfully for the scarlet and gray, forward Rebeka Mikulášiková was also filling in the scoring for Thierry. The Slovakian hit Ohio State’s first two three-point shots, with the rest of the team missing the other six attempts. Mikulášiková’s shot fake was working because of those threes, but had to go to the bench early in the second quarter with two fouls.
It was a chess match between head coach Kevin McGuff and Tennessee coach Kellie Harper. After Mikulášiková went to the bench, Harper brought Key back in with two fouls to go up against the much smaller Eboni Walker. Key met her seven minutes game total for the year in the first half alone, scoring five points and three rebounds.
Shooting for Tennessee wasn’t helping though. The Vols only took 11 total shots in the second quarter, hitting 27.3% of its chances. On the other end, Ohio State played mistake free basketball.
The Buckeyes didn’t give up the ball once in the second quarter, and forced six for the Vols, extending its lead to 43-28, thanks to guard Jacy Sheldon.
With what Tennessee thought was the final offensive possession, guard Avery Strickland hit a three-point shot, cutting the deficit to 13. With 12 seconds remaining, Sheldon surged up the court, cut through two defenders and had the wherewithal to know the clock was coming to an end. Under the basket, Sheldon shot with a noticeably early release to beat the shot clock and put the Buckeyes up 15 points.
McMahon led the way for the Buckeyes in the second quarter, scoring 11 of her 18 first half points before halftime.
Expecting a first half adjustment from the Vols, Ohio State didn’t relent out of the locker room. The Buckeyes started it with a six-point run, featuring two turnovers in the Vols first two offensive possessions of the quarter. With only 1:44 ticking off the third quarter clock, coach Harper had to call a timeout, with the scarlet and gray going up 21 points.
The Vols weathered the pressure, and eventually found success from deep. After the early Buckeyes run, Tennessee scored 11 of the next 15 points, with two shots beyond the arc. Coach Harper brought Key back in to try and channel some of the second quarter play but success didn’t follow because of costly Tennessee turnovers; two in 20 seconds.
Ohio State used its renewed defensive pressure on the offensive side of the court. scoring seven of the next eight points, keeping its lead to 20 points.
In that run though, the Buckeyes lost McMahon to foul trouble. Sitting on 19 points, McMahon had three third quarter fouls, bringing her game total to four. That meant a seat on the bench, but Ohio State didn’t slow down in response.
Thierry did her own McMahon impression receiving a pass on the wing. With the shot clock winding down, Thierry didn’t opt for the deep shot. Instead, Thierry ran to the paint, hitting the layup plus a free throw from the line.
The Buckeyes took a 19-point lead into the fourth quarter, and Taylor added to it quickly, hitting her first three-point shot of the game. Tennessee needed to go on a monumentally big run but the Vols and Buckeyes traded baskets. Plus, when the Vols had possession of the ball, it took too long for anything to come to fruition.
Ohio State grabbed the win thanks to 19 points from McMahon, who fouled out in the fourth quarter, 18 from Mikulášiková and a double-double of 15 points and 12 rebounds for Taylor. Big Ten takes the win over the SEC 78-58.
In Sunday’s game, Mikulášiková earned a personal milestone, hitting 1,000 points. The shot was appropriately a three-pointer.
Mikulášiková is the prototypical European big, the kind of player McGuff values for her ability to stretch the defense while posting up beyond the arc. Mikulášiková earned a single game record on the season in three-point shots made and points scored with three from deep, ending the game with 18 points.
Ohio State’s known for causing turnovers, but on Sunday the Buckeyes were huge in not giving the ball away. With careful passing and more room to move on offense, the scarlet and gray didn't suffer a turnover in the second quarter, on a run of almost 13 and a half minutes stretching from the end of the first into the third quarter.
While coach McGuff’s side didn’t run up 29 turnovers like it did last year (a still impressive 20 turnovers forced), the margin leaned heavily in the Buckeyes’ favor Sunday night.
Happy Birthday to Coach McGuff
The Buckeyes had quite the birthday gift for coach McGuff on Sunday. Entering the Big Ten/SEC matchup, Ohio State never beat the Vols in Knoxville, Tennessee and never twice in a row.
A ranked victory is a great gift for any coach, but the convincing nature of the Buckeyes’ win shows signs that Ohio State trajectory is moving in the right direction. That continued improvement will be crucial next Sunday against the 6-1 Penn State Nittany Lions and eight days after that against the No. 2 ranked UCLA Bruins.
Ohio State heads straight back to Columbus following Sunday’s game in SEC country, because Tuesday the Buckeyes go again. This time, against Ohio University, of the MAC. Like the Vols, the scarlet and gray finish a home-and-home with the in-state rivals. This time, after defeating the Bobcats in Athens, Ohio last year 86-56.
The Bobcats enter the Schottenstein Center with a 2-3 record, coming off a 75-72 defeat to Longwood University on Nov. 29. The Buckeyes are 21-1 against Ohio University, but that lone loss came in 2019, with coach McGuff leading a freshman Sheldon and the scarlet and gray.