Sunday’s game for the Ohio State women’s basketball team features a big name. Like the attention for that name or not, the attention is warranted. It’s Iowa Hawkeyes’ guard Caitlin Clark. A favorite for Naismith Player of the Year, Clark dominates the conversation and she’s part of a team full of talented and dynamic playmakers. All season, Iowa’s shown their might under the immense weight of that attention.
Even when the Buckeyes were at No. 2 in the country, the focus of the Big Ten, from large media outlets, rest upon Clark. On Jan. 23, Clark and Iowa took back part of a corner of that spotlight that rest upon the Scarlet & Gray, earning a triple-double with 33 points. 15 assist and 10 rebounds.
That 83-72 defeat ended the Buckeyes undefeated run and as Clark grabbed a “dub chain” giveaway shirt as her trophy for the win, the Buckeyes form overall began to dip.
While it took a few weeks to get it back, Saturday’s 24-point comeback by head coach Kevin McGuff’s side proved that not only are the Buckeyes back, but they’re better than before. The intangible that’s getting them there is an incredible team chemistry.
It sounds cheesy, sure. After all, any team at this point of the season that’s competing for a trophy and destined to be near a top seed in the NCAA Tournament is going to have team chemistry. It’s a specific kind of connection.
On the court, chemistry is easiest to see on the offensive side of the court. It’s evident in fluid movements off the ball, knowing where a teammate is going and passes that split defenders to find wide open looks. Iowa has it in droves. Ohio State has that in spells, but their relationship is different.
“They really like each other and they play for each other,” said Coach McGuff. “That’s a real motivating factor that they don’t want to let each other down.”
There have been moments throughout the entire season that it appeared that a letdown was imminent. Land-Grant Holy Land created a list ranking them they’ve happened so much.
Ohio State has been down against opponents by double-digits, and come back and won, six times this season. Erasing deficits of 18, 17 and 14 points in the process against teams like the Tennessee Volunteers, USF Bulls and Louisville Cardinals, who are all in the hunt at the end of the season for postseason runs of their own.
That relationship was on full display Saturday. Down 20 points entering the halftime locker room, as high as 24 points a few minutes prior to the end of the first half, they left imprints of their other worldly team chemistry all over the court.
Every corner of inbounds, and players diving out of bounds, were spaces for Ohio State to impose their defensive will. It’s a different chemistry but knowing a teammate is behind you, ready to go after the next person to receive a pass is trust. Not allowing holes in the transition defense and making it nearly impossible to even pass inbound takes a team in complete unison.
After all, Ohio State’s comeback wasn’t against a team that’s trying to adjust to new transfers. Many comebacks came against those sides where the old Mike Tyson quote of “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth” applied. This was against the No. 2 team in the country in the Hoosiers.
It was against a team that’s built otherworldly chemistry themselves. The Buckeyes surpassed their previous deficit comeback record by six points, tying the conference record for largest comeback ever and the largest in Big Ten Tournament history. After the game, guard Jacy Sheldon was asked how Ohio State stayed grounded.
“Just staying together, using each other, building energy off of each other, and making sure everybody had the same mindset,” said Sheldon. “We just rely on each other in situations like that, and it worked.”
All of that’s not to say that the Hawkeyes don’t have strong relationships with each other. It’s not saying that Iowa’s team doesn’t like each other, but they are a team that hasn’t faced a lot of adversity this season. Sure, there have been losses against tough teams, but when they’ve been down they haven’t had many examples of crawling out of it.
Twice this season, the Hawkeyes came back against teams who built up double-digit leads. The Michigan Wolverines and Nebraska Cornhuskers each got up to a 10-point lead, but both came early in the game, Nebraska’s came in the first quarter and Michigan in the start of the second.
Should Ohio State opt for the full court press, something they don’t always do to the intensity that they had to do Saturday, it’s hard to say how Iowa will react.
Ohio State can annoy opponents and this tournament shows that Iowa can be annoyed. Take the Hawkeyes win over the Purdue Boilermakers in the quarterfinals. Clark received a technical for complaining to the referees, agitated with Purdue’s defense and not getting the calls she hoped and receiving some she didn’t agree with.
Last year, in the NCAA Tournament, it was that attention on Clark that led to a second round defeat in Iowa City. The star still had a double-double but with only 15 points, 12 points less than her 21-22 season average. The Creighton Blue Jays played a physical game against the Hawkeyes and defeated Iowa 64-62 at home, not an easy thing to do.
Sunday won’t be easy for Ohio State either. Iowa City is just under five hours south of Minneapolis, Minnesota, causing a sea of black and yellow throughout the tournament. Compare that to maybe 100 scarlet and gray clad supporters who are likely friends and family of the team, or transplants living near the Twin Cities.
Purdue and Maryland have both quieted the crowd, in small stints. Should Ohio State be firing on all cylinders, there won’t necessarily be a quieter crowd but a more agitated crowd. It was clear on Saturday, with fans in the stands misconstruing defensive full court pressure to fouling and every bit of movement turns into screams for traveling.
The Buckeyes went into Iowa City and beat the Hawkeyes last season. That was without freshman forward Cotie McMahon or sophomore guard/forward Taylor Thierry who’s started every game and become crucial for the team’s success. Also, Iowa didn’t face Ohio State this season with Sheldon healthy on the roster.
So, while it might look like an easier game for Iowa than if they had to play the Indiana Hoosiers, the Buckeyes aren’t a team that’s easily walked over, when they’re in their game and playing as a team.
“If you do this long enough, you’re going to have years with great chemistry and you’re going to have year of not so good,” said McGuff following Saturday’s win. “This is one of my favorite teams I’ve ever had a chance to coach because of how much they enjoy being around each other.”