With the final games of the Big Ten regular season complete, the path for Ohio State women’s basketball is much clearer. It features a bitter rival and a potential opportunity for redemption.
Every team in the annual conference tournament is guaranteed at least one game and thanks to the Buckeyes' two wins over the Michigan Wolverines, Ohio State is automatically in the quarterfinals as the No. 4 tournament seed.
Before any matchups are broken down, here’s how the bracket looks overall.
Quarterfinals - Friday, March 3
The Scarlet & Gray will face either the No. 13, No. 12, or No. 5 seed on Friday. In those spots are the Minnesota Golden Gophers, Penn State Nittany Lions, and those same Wolverines.
Minnesota and Penn State will tip off the tournament on Wednesday. This season, the two sides played twice, with the Golden Gophers winning both contests. Also, with the home team of the tournament only winning three Big Ten games this season, 66% of their wins in conference play were against the Nittany Lions.
Those Golden Gophers are likely to have the most fans in the early rounds of the tournament, playing in their home state and city. That and their two wins give Minnesota a clear advantage. Plus, Penn State ended the season with a six-game losing streak. They’re not exactly carrying momentum into the postseason.
If the better seed ends up moving on, it’s a third game this season between the Scarlet & Gray and Maize & Blue. However, when tournament time hits, anything can happen. Here’s how the Buckeyes faired against all three potential opponents this season.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
Ohio State played Minnesota twice this season, with varying degrees of success in both of their wins. The first, Ohio State’s 16th win in a row to start the season, was a lot closer than expected.
Playing in Minnesota, the Buckeyes started hot, thanks to guard Taylor Mikesell. The guard scored eight points for Ohio State, along with five assists. It looked like a game that would end in a rout.
Instead, the Golden Gophers charged back, outscoring Ohio State 42-31 in the second and third quarters, increasing their home lead to 10 points with under four minutes remaining in the third quarter. Then came the fourth quarter.
The final 10 minutes are when the Buckeyes hit the gas pedal while the Golden Gophers looked like they were running on empty.
Mikesell scored nine more points and Ohio State outshot the home side 69% to 20%, winning by 12 points. At that point of the season, it was a regular occurrence for the Buckeyes to go down and charge back into a game. Their second meeting didn’t need any of that comeback energy.
On Feb. 8, Minnesota traveled to Ohio State and after hitting the first shot of the game, never got close to leading. The Buckeyes demolished the Gophers 93-63.
Penn State Nittany Lions
Before entering conference play, Penn State looked like a team who could surprise people. The Nittany Lions went 7-1 before their first conference game and in that stretch broke a program record for the largest comeback.
Against the Syracuse Orange on Nov. 21, the Nittany Lions were down 18 points at halftime to the ACC side. Penn State ended up winning 82-69 with a 21-point swing in the second half.
Their surprise season ended there. After losing their first Big Ten game, a double-overtime defeat to Minnesota, Penn State went 4-13 in conference play. Their 10th defeat in that stretch came at the hands of the Buckeyes.
On Feb. 16, Ohio State went into the fourth quarter in State College, Pennsylvania up 20 points, pushing it to 29 with 7:37 left in the third quarter. Then Penn State guard Makenna Marisa took over. The guard scored 18 points in the final quarter and the Buckeyes lead shrunk to 12 points at the final buzzer.
The Nittany Lions started their comeback about five minutes too late, showing that even though they’re a team in the basement of the conference, there’s still a fight.
Of the three options, the most likely feels like Michigan, but maybe not. The Wolverines beat both the Lions and Gophers in the regular season, with an especially impressive 36-point win over Minnesota. However, on Sunday, Michigan lost to the unranked Wisconsin Badgers (10-19 record overall). Minnesota Penn State might give the Wolverines a run for their money.
If there isn’t a tournament upset though, there’s history this year between Ohio State and their rivals to the north. The Buckeyes and Wolverines have played twice already this season, both victories by Ohio State. Each game had a similar result, but the match-ups were anything but the same.
The first game, on New Year’s Eve at Ohio State’s Covelli Center, was a gritty and defensive game. Michigan did to Ohio State what many teams have done over the last couple of seasons: They attacked inside.
Forwards Emily Kiser, who had a brief injury scare in the first quarter, and Cameron Williams scored a combined 28 points and split 20 rebounds down the middle. Michigan’s leading scorers, guards Leigha Brown and Laila Phelia, were neutralized by the Buckeyes' defense, scoring eight and nine points respectively.
At the end of the first quarter, it was a 10-9 Michigan lead, but Ohio State began to find its shot. The 19-point first quarter was followed up by a 38-point quarter where the Buckeyes went into the halftime locker room up on the Wolverines and never lost the lead, despite a fourth-quarter scare when Michigan got within a possession.
On Monday, the two teams played their second game, this time without Michigan guard Phelia. What resulted was the inverse of the first game, led by a big night from Buckeyes guard Rikki Harris and Brown, the Wolverines’ leading scorer and leader.
Ohio State didn’t allow Kiser and Williams to have the same impact in the paint, thanks to the full-court press. The Buckeyes forced 27 turnovers, not letting Michigan get into a rhythm, except for Brown.
In the Maize and Blue defeat, the Nebraska transfer hit a career-high with 36 points and grabbed nine rebounds. Although Ohio State couldn’t stop Brown defensively, the Scarlet and Gray limited her teammates. Michigan had no points from the bench and the rest of the starters combined for 25 points.
Offensively for the Buckeyes, Harris went off. Though an elite scorer in high school, she played wherever coach Kevin McGuff puts her; normally in more defensive or facilitating roles. Harris still did those things but scored 23 points, shooting 77.7% on the night, missing only two shots from in-game action and going 6-for-8 from the free throw line.
It was also the game that secured Ohio State the double-bye in the conference tournament.
After the Quarterfinals
Should coach McGuff’s side win their quarterfinal game against any of the three aforementioned programs, the difficulty jumps substantially. That’s because the odds fall on the No. 1 overall tournament seed, and No. 2 team in the country, the Indiana Hoosiers to move into the semifinal.
Something going Ohio State’s way is that both the Cornhuskers and Spartans have a chance. Sunday, Indiana showed they can be beaten, thanks to a buzzer-beating three by Iowa Hawkeyes guard Caitlin Clark at the buzzer.
Before Clark was winning Iowa the game though, the Hoosiers didn’t have a perfect record. Indiana’s 26-2 record also includes a loss to the Michigan State Spartans.
Also, the Cornhuskers are playing for their NCAA Tournament lives at the moment. In the most recent ESPN bracketology, Nebraska is in the first four out of March Madness. After beginning the year in the AP top-25, Big Red’s been inconsistent. In one game they’re losing to Virginia Tech by 31 points then defeating a strong Maryland Terrapins side by 23 points.
Either way, none of that matters if the Buckeyes don’t win their game. It all starts for Ohio State Thursday, roughly around 3:30 p.m. ET with it being the second game of the day. Land-Grant Holy Land will be live from the tournament to provide you all the coverage.