Sometimes it's difficult to believe an athlete when they say they’re just focusing on the next game. Especially for the Ohio State women’s basketball team who have a tall task of facing the No. 7 Maryland Terrapins to finish out the regular season and then a conference and NCAA tournament on the other side of it.
After Monday’s emphatic 74-61 Buckeyes win over the Michigan Wolverines, the Buckeyes could breathe a little easier after losing their previous four games against ranked Big Ten opponents.
Guard Rikki Harris, who led the Buckeyes with 23 points, seven steals, and five assists, proved how focused Ohio State is at this point in the season when she found out the win over the Wolverines came with a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament.
“It did? Really,” asked Harris, adding an enthusiastic clap to the obvious joy on her face. “Sorry, I didn’t know that! Yeah, we’re ready.”
Monday gave all the appearances that Ohio State is ready. Lately, the Scarlet & Gray have thrived over unranked sides like the Penn State Nittany Lions and Minnesota Golden Gophers, but once a team near the top of the standings entered the arena it was a different story.
Against the Wolverines, head coach Kevin McGuff’s side played with high intensity and the results were clear. On New Year’s Eve, when the two teams last faced off, forwards Emily Kiser and Cameron Williams each had a double-double against Ohio State’s post defense. Monday, Kiser had 11 points and only six rebounds. Williams’ two points and a rebound in 9:25 played. No word if an injury is connected to the limited minutes.
The Wolverines’ lone bright spot was guard Leigha Brown who scored 36 of Michigan’s 61 points, but in the second half, when the Maize & Blue needed it the most, the Buckeyes’ defense got stronger.
In the fourth quarter, the Buckeyes held Michigan to 7.7% shooting from the field, hitting one three and 10 free throws.
“I thought we looked different tonight,” said coach McGuff. “Against Penn State in our last outing we had some great stretches but then we just had some awful stretches and that’s what we talked about. ‘Hey, we’ve just got to get closer to 40 minutes with doing what we did in Penn State’ and I thought we competed for 40 minutes.”
Ohio State didn’t just look different. They looked better than their best this season. Against Tennessee, Louisville, and Illinois, the Buckeyes went down double-digits and needed to come back with big scoring runs. Monday, Ohio State was down eight in the first three minutes but came back to lead the game for 33 of the 40 minutes.
A big part of that success was forcing turnovers.
“We looked way more energetic in the press,” said McGuff. “I thought that was really effective. Just our competitive spirit and will get stops and rebounds were better and just our commitment to executing on the offensive end because they’re really good defensively.”
The Buckeyes forced three 10-second violations for having the ball in the backcourt too long and 27 turnovers in the victory. Those 27 turnovers match what Ohio State did back on New Year’s Eve, good for the fifth most turnovers forced in the conference this season; a sign that the undefeated Buckeyes mentality might be back.
“It’s all about us,” said Harris. “If the press ain’t working that means we’re not doing it right or going as hard, so when all four of us, five of us, are in sync and working together, it's hard to beat it.”
Monday showed the Buckeyes press can still be hard to beat. The Scarlet & Gray were leaping out of bounds to keep possession, diving in front of passes, and kept it going even into the fourth quarter when their lead was at double-digits. No late game lapse like a dwindling 29-point lead against Penn State or even back on Dec. 31 when Michigan got to within a possession of Ohio State in the final quarter.
Now the Buckeyes’ attention shifts to Friday. The Terrapins head to the Schottenstein Center fresh off a 28-point win over the No. 6 Iowa Hawkeyes on Tuesday. Back on Feb. 5, Ohio State played the exact opposite way against Maryland than they did against Michigan, losing 90-54.
The final game of the regular season brings the opportunity to show that Monday’s win wasn’t a flash-in-the-pan moment, and take some momentum into the fourth round of the Big Ten Tournament next week in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
“It’s a grind, the Big Ten tournament, so to be able to get to that next day and not have to play is important,” said McGuff. “Especially, you know, we’re still not super deep at this point so I think that could be important for us.”