Although the timing was odd — a Monday, 4 p.m. ET tip-off —the Ohio State women’s basketball team and North Carolina Tar Heels took to the court. Their mission: Secure a spot in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet Sixteen.
Ohio State went up 12 points in the fourth quarter, but the Tar Heels kept battling, despite a key injury. Even so, the Buckeyes held on, moving on to the Sweet Sixteen following the 71-69 victory.
Unlike Ohio State’s game against James Madison on Saturday, the Buckeyes had the momentum early. A pair of three-point makes by guard Taylor Mikesell and a jumper by forward Eboni Walker put the home team up 8-0 after three minutes. It took the Tar Heels until the 5:55 mark to make their first shot of the game.
However, after a timeout, North Carolina made it more of a game. The Tar Heels shrunk a nine-point Buckeyes lead to one with a tough shooting spell, hitting two of their last eight shots of the quarter.
Those shots came from freshman forward Cotie McMahon. The Big Ten Freshman of the Year hit a midrange shot and continued applying pressure to the basket, although the whistles weren’t always going her way.
After the first quarter, the Scarlet and Gray were up 16-14 and to start the second quarter, the Buckeyes pushed their lead out again. Ohio State continued to do it through turnovers. In the first two and a half minutes of the second quarter, the Buckeyes forced three turnovers. Combine that with strong play on offense and the home team went up eight points again.
That lead was led by strong play by Walker. Ohio State’s transfer forward out of Las Vegas, Nevada forced a turnover, assisted in a tight space on offense, and had a crossover move that turned into a layup.
The Buckeyes scored the first six points of the quarter and even as UNC guard Deja Kelly hit a three, Mikesell responded with a shot of her own from deep. It was Mikesell’s third of the game with over 25 minutes still remaining in the Round of 32 contest.
North Carolina chipped away at the lead, but the Buckeyes held onto a five-point advantage heading into halftime. Much of that UNC scoring came inside the paint. The Tar Heels shot 1-for-8 from three in the first half and 37.9% overall. Ohio State, after not hitting 32% efficiency in any of their last three first halves of games, shot 46.2%, leading 33-28 after the first 20 minutes.
In the second half, Ohio State wasn’t settling with the five-point lead. Immediately, the Buckeyes went into the press. Halfway through the quarter, the Tar Heels were at three turnovers, with Ohio State getting four points off the changes in possession.
After a six-point run for the home team, Ohio State secured a double-digit lead for the first time. Again, UNC responded but every shot was returned by the Buckeyes. Slightly limited coming out of the break was McMahon. Carolina head coach Courtney Banghart changed tactics and put two-to-three Tar Heels on anyone going to the rim, in hopes of limiting effectiveness.
It worked for the visitors, cutting the 10-point lead to one point. Also, after the officiating crew allowed a pretty physical game, more whistles started surfacing as the game got closer.
Even so, Ohio State scored seven of the last five points of the quarter, thanks to a floating layup and trip to the line by Mikesell with two seconds remaining, the Buckeyes entered the final quarter up 51-46.
In the fourth quarter, there were good moments and bad. The worse coming on the UNC side of the ball. Star guard Kelly, with under seven minutes remaining, ran into Walker on a screen and went to the ground. The guard needed to be carried off the court, with her left knee being injured in the contact.
The injury came when the Tar Heels were down 12 points to Ohio State. On the same play though, it was Sheldon getting that lead to a dozen. Sheldon missed on the open three-point attempt but chased the ball to the rim, grabbing the rebound. From the rebound the guard found Mikesell open in the corner, hitting her fourth three-point shot of the night.
As Kelly was then walked back to the locker room, UNC clawed back into the game. Guard/forward Alyssa Ustby, who attacked the rim all game, hit two consecutive layups, topped off with a three-point shot by guard Kennedy Todd-Williams. Coach McGuff called a timeout, now up five points.
Out of the timeout though, Ustby got Ohio State again. This time, running around McMahon, hesitating, and hitting an acrobatic layup, bringing the game within a possession.
After Ohio State and North Carolina exchanged free throws, Walker put the Buckeyes up three with a layup. Then, Kelly returned after it looked like the star wouldn’t play again in the game.
Following Kelly’s entrance, the guard went to the free throw line, drawing a foul and hitting both free throws. Then, a Buckeyes turnover gave North Carolina their first lead of the game. In five minutes a 12-point lead was erased, with UNC up one with 2:04 remaining.
Ohio State battled back. A Sheldon layup, Walker rebound and a free throw by Sheldon put the Buckeyes back up 69-67 with 38 seconds remaining. The Buckeyes got the ball back thanks to a foul on forward Teonni Key on a screen, but with the possession Ohio State threw the ball away.
Then Kelly came in off the timeout to hit the game-tying shot. That shot gave the Buckeyes 9.8 seconds to find a basket of their own or face a potential overtime period. Off the timeout, it was Sheldon who hit the floating layup, putting the Buckeyes up 71-69 with 1.8 seconds on the clock.
UNC advanced the ball and off the inbound, a lob to Ustby went too far, giving OSU the win and the trip to Seattle for the Sweet Sixteen.
Mikesell’s Last Game in Columbus
Starting the scoring for Ohio State was the graduate senior Mikesell. The guard led the Buckeyes with nine points in the first half, hitting three shots from deep. While the deep shooting cooled for a bit, Mikesell added steals and assists in the contest, showing how vital the guard is to this Buckeyes team.
Over the past month of the regular season and postseason, Walker started at the forward position but it was a toss-up on who head coach Kevin McGuff would prefer on the floor at any given time. Neither Walker nor forward Rebeka Mikulášiková solidified themselves as the person that needed to be in the game.
Monday, Walker was great for the Buckeyes. Not necessarily in scoring or highlight reel moves but in solid play overall. Walker went three quarters without giving up a turnover, grabbing seven rebounds and leading Ohio State’s +/- with 19.
In the fourth quarter, Walker hit a midrange shot to put Ohio State up double-digits again. Walker’s 15 points are the most she’s scored as a Buckeye. On top of that, the forward had no turnovers.
Ohio State now moves on to the Sweet Sixteen. The Buckeyes travel to Seattle, Washington to face the winner of the UConn Huskies and the Baylor Bears. The third round of the tournament matches how far the Scarlet & Gray made it in last year’s tournament, before ultimately falling to the Texas Longhorns in a 66-63 defeat at the hands of the Big 12 side.
The Sweet Sixteen is scheduled for Saturday, March 25.