There are 40 completed women’s NCAA Tournaments in the record books. That means 40 NCAA Championship trophies, thousands of student athletes lives changed and more pieces of confetti than any human can count. Of those 40 titles, the UConn Huskies own 11. That’s 27.5% of all NCAA Division I women’s basketball handed out in the country.
UConn is a program featuring legends of the game like Maya Moore, Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart. Each winning an NCAA title and carrying that into WNBA hardware. Even the most casual of sports fans has heard of UConn and head coach Geno Auriemma.
In 2023, UConn is in a slump. It’s been a whole five tournaments since the Huskies won a National Championship. There are kids entering kindergarten who haven’t seen Auriemma lift an NCAA trophy.
Heavy sarcasm aside, UConn has built the strongest and most consistent basketball program in the nation. On Saturday, the Ohio State women’s basketball team tries to do something no team has done to UConn in 14 tournaments in a row: End the Huskies NCAA Tournament before the Final Four.
Take a look around the world of women’s college basketball and a Buckeyes’ win on Saturday isn’t a popular opinion. On ESPN’s “people’s bracket,” a name given for who all brackets combined chose to make it into later rounds of the tournament, Ohio State has 19% of selections, compared to 81% for UConn.
Go into the world of sports gambling and confidence is also low for the Scarlet & Gray. FanDuel puts the money line at +410 for Ohio State and -590 for UConn. The spread sits at a 9.5 point victory for the Huskies. Both shared in an article with a headline including “(Huskies Dominate).”
Even the quickest dive into outlets who cover the Huskies exclusively and Saturday’s Sweet Sixteen game against Ohio State is a blip on the radar. It’s a technicality with eyes fixated more on the winner of Virginia Tech and Tennessee.
At this point, the point’s been driven home pretty clearly: Saturday’s game is UConn’s to win.
Fortunately for the Buckeyes, fans, gambling companies and UConn media outlets don’t determine which team moves into the Elite Eight, that’s what 40 minutes of basketball on Saturday decides.
For Ohio State, the initial reaction following Monday’s round of 32 win over the North Carolina Tar Heels was excitement fueled.
“I’m excited. I want to play UConn so bad,” said freshman forward Cotie McMahon. “So, yes. Very excited. Before the season even started. UConn.”
After a rest day for Ohio State, followed by the start of Buckeyes film study and practice, the response changed. The tone shifted.
“They’re a good team but all the teams we’ve played are good teams,” said McMahon. “So, its just another game for us so im sure its just another game for them. That’s it.”
It’s a shift that represents the game outside of the game. Before Saturday, Ohio State practices and strategizes to beat UConn, but until then the Buckeyes face the aura of UConn.
Combating it means doing what the team can to minimize or remove the aura from the conversation.
“As coaches, we always say, ‘if they show up wearing a different jersey that said Illinois or something maybe we’d play a little different,’” said McGuff. “So I think you have to get over the fact that you’re playing an iconic program and make it more about the players and the game and all that type of stuff and take that out as much as you can which is obviously easier said than done.”
Focusing on the players, UConn is obviously talented. Guard Azzi Fudd is returning to form following an injury that kept the sophomore out for 13 games in 2023. Forward Aaliyah Edwards is a dual threat who can attack the basket, force fouls and also hurt teams from the perimeter. Then there’s former Buckeye forward Dorka Juhasz who’s started every game for the Huskies this season.
That’s only three players on a team of all highly touted prospects. A team that also doesn’t include arguably their best player, guard Paige Bueckers who tore her ACL before the start of the 22-23 season.
The way the Scarlet & Gray win on both fronts is keeping their composure. It’s a trait coach McGuff’s stressed to the Buckeyes all season.
“I know it sounds bad to say but, not that we’re used to being down, but we’ve definitely had a couple games where we had to kind of not give up and work our way back up the top,” said McMahon. “So I feel like those games where we’ve been down a tremendous amount have definitely helped us and prepared us for March Madness.”
Looking at this year’s March Madness for the Buckeyes, their two wins are impressive in their own ways.
Against the James Madison Dukes, in the first round of March Madness, the Buckeyes went down 16 points in the second quarter before trimming the deficit to three before halftime. It wasn’t coach McGuff screaming at the players that changed the trajectory of the game. Instead, it was a season full of trials that turn panic situations for some teams into moments that have a knack for coming out in the Buckeyes’ favor.
Now, the name JMU doesn’t strike fear into the hearts of most college basketball fans, but they’re a team that’s made the tournament 14 times in their history of playing in mostly small conferences.
This season, the Dukes moved from the Colonial Athletic Association to the Sun Belt, quite a jump in competition. After being picked to finish sixth in the conference, JMU won the regular season and conference tournaments, handedly.
Then take North Carolina. They’re a team with more eyes on them because of the name and their spot in the ACC. Plus, they have outstanding players like Deja Kelly and Alyssa Ustby who give teams fits. For 40 minutes, Ohio State showed composure as the Tar Heels kept cutting back deficits, but the Buckeyes would adjust and push them back up.
Even at the end of the game, after the Scarlet & Gray led the game for almost 38 minutes, the Tar Heels had their first lead of the game. Ohio State didn’t flinch or crumble. Instead, senior Eboni Walker, who only began starting for the Buckeyes at the end of the regular season, kept her cool in a broken inbound play before guard Jacy Sheldon hit a shot in the paint to get her team back into the Sweet Sixteen.
Those are only the March Madness examples. They don’t include a 24-point comeback against the Indiana Hoosiers in the Big Ten Tournament, 17-point third quarter deficit to the Illinois Fighting Illini and down to both the Tennessee Volunteers and Louisville Cardinals in November. They all ended with Ohio State victories.
It’s clear that Ohio State has the ability to hold their composure. Now they’re doing it off the court before they plan to do it on the court.
“I feel like Uconn, everybody wants to play UConn just because of the name,” said McMahon. “But at the end the day they are just any other team.”