The Ohio State women’s basketball team is single-handedly making the full-court press the talk of Seattle, Washington. Entering the Sweet Sixteen, entering a game headlining matchup against the UConn Huskies, legendary head coach Geno Auriemma set the tone for the weekend.
“Not crazy about our matchup, you know,” said Auriemma. “They’re a unique team that poses unique problems, so we’ve got our hands full tomorrow.”
After coach Auriemma, UConn players said they were confident going up against the Buckeyes’ press. Citing the practice team using their biggest and fastest guys to challenge the Huskies in the days leading up to the Sweet Sixteen.
What transpired in Saturday’s Sweet Sixteen game was nothing short of one-sided. The chaos of Ohio State’s press forced 18 first-half turnovers, already eclipsing UConn’s 16.4 turnovers per game average. The Buckeyes went on to win 73-61.
The Huskies sat in the bottom tenth percentile of programs in Division I in facing the press, but for the Virginia Tech Hokies it’s a different story.
“I think the whole ACC teams, Duke, Louisville, Miami, they’re all aggressive styles and they all pressed at some points in the game,” said guard Cayla King. “So playing those teams throughout the year and the ACC tournament I think has prepared us some for this.”
Tech has a unique advantage of going up against teams with a press, but a look closer shows that what the Hokies will see against the Buckeyes is nothing the ACC side has faced this season.
On March 5, the Hokies faced the Louisville Cardinals in the ACC Tournament title game. In the Cardinals’ press, Louisville plays man-to-man in the press, not letting the opposing team walk up the court alone, but there’s room to operate. The Cardinals don’t double up on the player receiving the inbound pass, even late in games.
In the third quarter of the championship, Louisville cut its deficit to nine points, and on the inbound pass, there was a press, but didn’t turn into more than the Cardinals getting to their assigned player and backing into the offensive half of the court as Virginia Tech moved up the court to set their next play.
Louisville forced 13 turnovers in the Hokies’ victory, the first ACC Tournament title for Virginia Tech in program history.
A better comparison between what the Hokies have seen and will see Monday night comes one day earlier, in the ACC Tournament semifinal against the Duke Blue Devils.
For folks who haven’t watched Duke, it’s not the most flowing or entertaining basketball in America, but it works. The Blue Devils are third in the country in scoring defense per game. Duke allows 51 points per game, and only mid-major Norfolk State and the No. 1 overall team in the nation — South Carolina — sit in front of the side from Durham.
Duke does it through a swarming defense of their own. Head coach Kara Lawson employs a press that’s similar to Louisville, in a way, but the players are more in the face of their opponents. From the inbound pass, or even after a miss on offense, players find their assignments and make life difficult.
In the Blue Devil’s first round of the ACC Tournament, they beat the North Carolina Tar Heels by a score of 44-40. That’s not for a half, but the entire game. Against Virginia Tech, Duke’s press caused 16 turnovers but wasn’t enough to keep a strong offensive Hokies team off the board.
Virginia Tech won 58-37, but even with the defensive skill of Duke, it's not the same as Ohio State’s press. Although, Duke’s defense is the catalyst for the type of Hokies the Buckeyes will see Monday night.
“When we got beat at Duke, the game before Virginia. They really manhandled us,” said Hokies head coach Kenny Brooks. “From that point on, we developed a mantra. It was like, okay, we have to be physical and not — a lot of times when people say you got to be physical, they’re talking about the defensive end, be physical, be physical, be physical. But we took that to also mean we need to be physical on the offensive end.”
The Hokies haven’t lost in 14 games, it was on Jan. 26, against Duke, that Brooks’ mantra took hold of Tech. Physicality on offense means getting up the floor and taking hold of the defense. Virginia does it by dumping the ball into 6-foot-6 center Elizabeth Kitley or sending up a three if the defense is taking their time getting set.
For the Buckeyes, that physicality on offense compliments its press well. Why? Because Ohio State wants teams to play fast. It's the speed that leads to mistakes, which the Scarlet and Gray have a knack for causing when their press is locked in. Ask the players who produce that press and even they’re caught off guard by it.
“We play off each other, so if I see somebody else do something, I’m like, okay, I see her move. Let me slide over,” said guard Rikki Harris. “But mainly it’s just scramble and we just run. So it definitely has to do with conditioning because you have to run nonstop, but it’s just — nobody can really scout it because we don’t even know what we’re going to do next, so how can somebody else know?”
Ohio State takes the press of Louisville, minimizing the gap between the offensive and defensive players of Duke, and slams its foot on the pedal.
Off the inbound pass, the Buckeyes have two players on the person receiving the ball. If that player doesn’t find an outlet in a small window, it’s more than likely a jump ball whistle by one of a few different Ohio State guards, a timeout wasted by the opposition, or every so often a foul called on the Buckeyes.
The Scarlet and Gray take that chance though. Getting turnovers or wasting the offense’s time and forcing a 10 or five-second violation all result in the same thing: The ball in the Buckeyes’ hands.
If there is an outlet found, there’s a Buckeye on that player too. Make the wrong decision or lob the pass too high in the air and an Ohio State player is likely the one receiving the pass.
From turnovers, Ohio State gets easier points. The Buckeyes had 23 points off turnovers against UConn on Saturday, compared to 14 for the Huskies.
Those are extra points that don’t come from a drawn-up offensive set, which the Buckeyes still have and employ in the half-court. Ohio State isn’t only a pressing team. Rarely in the win over North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament’s Second Round did the Buckeyes press.
The plays head coach McGuff calls helped the Buckeyes get last-second wins over the Indiana Hoosiers in the Big Ten Tournament semifinal and that win over the Tar Heels last Monday.
Also, with guard Jacy Sheldon, Ohio State’s press that was effective during the regular season hits another level. Since returning from injury the Dublin, Ohio native has 2.3 steals per game, and those are just steals. The stat doesn’t include the pressure Sheldon brings that forces bad passes or those violations in the backcourt.
Q4 | Steal ➡️ score!! This is the @jacysheldon we know and love!!!#GoBucks pic.twitter.com/Iw7tMoRuMG— Ohio State WBB (@OhioStateWBB) March 4, 2023
“She just pushes the ball so aggressively and everybody’s got to come with her,” said McGuff. “And then we’re more effective in our press. Her ball pressure, her speed quickness, ability to cover ground, quick hands just puts us at another level.”
That’s a level the Hokies have to reach on Monday, should the Buckeyes get into that press. If recent games are any predictor of how Ohio State sets up in the Elite Eight, there’s the potential for a lot of exciting, and hectic, basketball ahead.