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Four Storylines: No. 3 Ohio State women vs. No. 1 Virginia Tech

The status of guard Taylor Mikesell, pressing, aggressive VT offense and the quest for the Final Four

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Barbara J. Perenic/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

A lot of people didn’t put the Ohio State women’s basketball team this far into the tournament. The “people’s bracket” for ESPN had 12% of folks completing a bracket featuring the Buckeyes this far. Even in the game preview for Saturday’s game against the UConn Huskies Land-Grant Holy Land picked the Huskies in a narrow victory.

None of that matters because the Scarlet & Gray are in the Elite Eight following a 73-61 defeat of coach Geno Auriemma and the 11-time champions.

Now, the Buckeyes have a matchup against a No. 1 seed on the horizon. Here are a few things to watch when the No. 3 Buckeyes take on the No. 1 Virginia Tech Hokies Monday night in Seattle, Washington.

Taylor Mikesell’s Status

Watch Saturday’s Buckeyes victory over the Huskies and something in and out of the game grabbing attention was the health of guard Taylor Mikesell. After logging the most minutes in the Big Ten this season, it looked to have caught up with Mikesell.

During timeouts the guard received treatment, in the game Mikesell wasn’t taking as many shots and went to the bench for 1:29 of the game, only to return and close out the remaining 13 game minutes. Sunday, Mikesell made it clear about her status for Monday.

“I mean, I feel good,” said Mikesell. “The most important thing is to win and we got that. Credit to everybody that stepped up but I’ll be ready to go tomorrow.”

Mikesell is important For Ohio State not only because she can hit shots with the best of them in the NCAA but the Massillon, Ohio native also draws in the defense, making life easier for her teammates. The Virginia Tech is a sound defensive team, and the Buckeyes will need all hands on deck if they hope to topple a No. 1 seeded Hokies.

Saturday’s inspirational performance for Mikesell is an added layer of motivation for the Scarlet & Gray. Don’t expect any players to be out Monday night.

Containing Elizabeth Kitley

The Buckeyes faced their fair share of dominant post players in the 22-23 season. During the non-conference schedule the Buckeyes fought Tennessee Volunteers’ center Tamari Key before injury ended her season. Before Christmas, it was against Dulcy Fankam-Mendjiadeu who almost toppled Ohio State’s then perfect record with a stat line of 34 points and 17 rebounds.

It didn’t get much easier in the Big Ten. The Scarlet & Gray faced Indiana Hoosiers forward Mackenzie Holmes three times, along with two losses to Iowa Hawkeyes and outstanding center Monika Czinano. Monday night, the Buckeyes face a different kind of challenge in Virginia Tech Hokies’ center Elizabeth Kitley.

“She’s really versatile. She can score around the basket. She’s got nice touch. But she can also step away 15, 16, 17 feet and make shots,” said head coach Kevin McGuff. “So I just think usually we’re playing post players that are good on the perimeter or they’re good around the basket and she’s kind of good at both.”

Kitley will give forwards Eboni Walker, Rebeka Mikulášiková and whoever else slides into the role a difficult night. No surprise with Kitley’s status as a Naismith National Player of the Year candidate. It’s likely that Ohio State won’t completely stop the 6-foot-6 center, but limiting Kitley is possible.

Ohio State has athletic players who slide under the basket when needed. Forward Cotie McMahon, and guard/forward combo Taylor Thierry are the likely candidates to stop a shot under the rim. If the Buckeyes hold Kitley to a night similar to that of Dorka Juhász’s 12 points and 10 rebounds, Ohio State has a strong chance to continue making headlines.

Pressing, Pressing, Pressing

Before Saturday’s Ohio State victory over the UConn Huskies, the narrative was around the perennial powerhouse that is UConn continuing their run to 15-straight Final Fours. Following a Buckeyes’ defensive performance that ended with 25 forced turnovers on Connecticut, 18 in the first half alone, the conversation quickly shifted to the press. Mainly, how do the Hokies handle it?

Virginia Tech, unlike the Huskies, is used to facing a defensive press. Games against the Duke Blue Devils, Miami Hurricanes and Louisville Cardinals are proof. While the Hokies lost to Miami and Duke, a loss to the latter was also the catalyst for the 14-game winning streak Virginia Tech currently sits in.

“When we got beat at Duke, the game before Virginia. They really manhandled us,” said Virginia Tech head coach Kenny Brooks. “They really put pressure on Georgia (Amoore). They were extremely physical with her. They were extremely physical with Liz (Kitley). From that point on, we developed a mantra. It was like, okay, we have to be physical.”

The Hokies will be physical with Ohio State, but not in the way people think of throwing their bodies into a charge on defense or not relenting on pressuring shooters. No, it’s offensive pressure.

Virginia Tech began enforcing its will on the offensive side of the ball. In the game, it materializes in the form of quick transition offense, sending up quick shots with only seconds coming off the clock.

It’s not layups or midrange jumpers either. It’s also from deep. Guard Georgia Amoore is the person who will lead the way in that category. Amoore only has a 35.1% average from deep, but the total of shots the Australian will take from deep is staggering. The guard averages 9.2 three-point attempts per game, still making 3.2 per game.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Barbara J. Perenic/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

That's just more than Mikesell for Ohio State, hitting 3.1 per game on 7.7 attempts per game. For Mikesell, she sees it as a positive — for the Buckeyes.

“She’s an incredible player, just to see her, the volume that she shoots it at is really incredible,” said Mikesell. “But I think it plays well in our favor, the pace that they play at. Just being able to cause some havoc in our press, get some easy looks in transition, obviously push pace as well on offense.”

At the Doorstep of the Final Four

For both the Buckeyes and Hokies, Monday’s game is historic. In the Hokies’ camp, the Elite Eight appearance is the first in the history of the Blacksburg, Virginia program. On the Ohio State side, the first trip this far into the NCAA Tournament since 1993, when freshman Katie Smith led the Scarlet & Gray to within two points of a National Championship trophy.

“we’ve talked a lot about parity in recent years in our game, and I think it — there is a lot more parity than there used to be,” said McGuff. “But to really validate that statement we need new teams in the Final Four. So I think this is obviously a great opportunity for both programs.”

Of the remaining teams in the tournament, the Miami Hurricanes and the Virginia Tech Hokies are the last remaining sides to not see a Final Four birth. It’s safe to say that coach McGuff won’t want the Hokies to get that first Final Four this season, but should Ohio State make the national semifinal, it will go against the Final Fours of recent seasons that predominantly featured the UConn Huskies, South Carolina Gamecocks and Notre Dame Fighting Irish teams of the world.