Wednesday’s victory for Ohio State women’s basketball over the Maryland Terrapins wasn’t unlikely because the Buckeyes don’t have the ability to win. It wasn’t because the scarlet and gray haven’t won in Maryland since January 2016. The fact that the Terrapins did whatever they wanted to Ohio State last February and carried a 19-game winning streak into the midweek defeat this week also doesn’t play into the unlikeliness.
The Buckeyes win bucked a lot of basketball and team norms. Imagine a game where star point guard and WNBA prospect Jacy Sheldon missed every shot she took from the field until the final two and a half minute of the game. Think about the prospect of graduate senior Celeste Taylor, known for outstanding defense and hustle, earning two quick fouls in the first quarter. How about a game where the Buckeyes gave up the ball more than they forced it back into their possession?
All of that happened and more. All-in-all, the game didn’t go according to Ohio State’s plan but it still ended with a mostly comfortable eight-point victory. How did it happen? Let’s look at the Buckeyes guards.
Sheldon and Taylor are a force of a duo, and this season are the foundation of the team. Against the Terrapins though, head coach Brenda Frese did well at disrupting the flow of the game.
When Ohio State had the ball in the half court, the Maryland guards took away even the easiest stretch of dribbling. Movements that most NCAA guards are doing in their sleep. It made even setting up plays difficult. Passing kept the game close.
Maryland’s lead never stretched more than five points, thanks to work from forwards Taylor Thierry and Rebeka Mikulášiková. The two found space in the Terrapins pressing and zone defenses, often moving through one-on-one matchups to keep Ohio State on the scoreboard when outside shots weren’t falling.
The two scored a combined 25 points, compared to 15 for everyone else. In those 25 points, Thierry didn’t miss a single shot, going 5-for-5, while Mikulášiková shot 50% overall, including two key three-point shots. The first put Ohio State within a possession early in the third quarter. The second putting the Buckeyes in a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. Those outside shots fed off the inside game.
“I think even last game against Michigan State and this game I tried to just play more inside,” said Mikulášiková. “That helps me to again the confidence to step outside and hit the threes.”
Mikulasikova’s 3-for-6 game is made more impressive knowing it fit into an overall 4-for-26 peformance for the Buckeyes from deep, with Taylor hitting the lone non-Mikulášiková three-pointer of the game. Something about Sheldon’s quietness in the game is that it didn’t last.
In the fourth quarter, with 2:33 remaining, Sheldon started a run that put separation between the two teams once and for all. Hitting another gear of intensity, Sheldon scored six points, added an assist and a steal. That steal was demoralizing for the Terrapins too, coming out of a Maryland timeout. The graduate senior telegraphed a pass at the top of the arc and hit a fast break layup on her own.
“Jacy (Sheldon) had some opportunities early in the ball didn’t go in but I was really proud of her because she’s got such great competitive character,” said head coach Kevin McGuff. “Even when she wasn’t making shots like she does, she continued to play her game and build the ball and she had some huge plays down the stretch.”
Speaking of huge, Coach McGuff himself had a huge decision to make early in the game: Leave in Taylor with two fouls, or put her on the bench to save her for later? McGuff’s gamble to knock the normal strategy of sitting a player in foul trouble was vital.
With 2:11 remaining in the first quarter, Taylor picked up her second foul. The decision to keep her in paid off quickly. Within a minute of that foul, Taylor hit Ohio State’s next basket of the game, a three-point shot. Then the guard closed the quarter out with a steal and layup that gave the Buckeyes an early game lead.
McGuff kept Taylor in for six minutes of the second quarter too, giving Ohio State another two points, two rebounds and a steal. If other things were going differently in the game, it could’ve been a different decision for the coach.
“We weren’t scoring the ball or making shots, and so we’re going to hang in this game with our defense and rebounding,” said Coach McGuff on the decision. “Celeste is a great defender and a great rebounder, so I thought we’d be here on the court and you know she’s experienced enough that I trust her that she may get a third foul but I think she’s going to make good decisions and try to not put herself in that position.”
Compare that to Terrapins star junior guard Shyanne Sellers. Coach Frese put the guard on the bench, which ultimately didn’t hurt the Terps in the first half, leading for a majority of the time, but there are questions on what could have been, with Sellers not even taking a shot until the third quarter, playing seven of the 20 first half minutes minutes.
Defense was the other strategy that didn’t fall into place as Coach McGuff and the Buckeyes liked. Maryland shot 50% in the first half, plus 33.3% from the line, 10 points higher than the normal three-point efficiency allowed by Ohio State entering Wednesday.
The press wasn’t forcing the turnovers Ohio State hoped for, ultimately ending with the Buckeyes having a -1 turnover margin. That too called for a change.
“We just weren’t real effective in terms of pressuring and disrupting them up front,” said McGuff. “So when they were advancing it, because they played with a lot of small lineups, so the back end of the press and their guards were getting hit.”
That meant another game of more half court defense. While Maryland was still successful for much of three quarters, a different fundamental popped up where Ohio State isn’t used to thriving: Rebounding.
Leading that effort were Thierry and sophomore Cotie McMahon. Both had nine on the day, and six of those on offense. McMahon’s especially came at a time when the Buckeyes needed them the most.
McMahon entered the fourth quarter and it was clear that she was on a mission. On both sides of the court, McMahon was involved in every play. That meant not only rebounding but hitting layups, closing in on shooters and generally pestering the Terrapins. At one point, McMahon poked the ball out of a Terp’s hand, going out of bounds, keeping possession with Maryland. McMahon’s reacted the same way she does when hitting a driving layup and earning a foul call. Wednesday meant more.
“I didn’t want to lose this game,” said McMahon. “I didn’t want to lose this game because of lack of rebounding on the boards, and just a lot of hustle. You know, I feel like Maryland is a great team, they can play all four quarters. So you know, in order for us to win we had to play all four quarters.”
Basketball is a four quarter game after all, and it was the fourth where it all came together for the Buckeyes. The team came together in a tough environment, against a tough team with an even tougher obstacle coming up on Sunday, with the Iowa Hawkeyes coming to the Schottenstein Center for a top-20 matchup.
If Ohio State wants to come away with home win against the reigning National runners up and National Player of the Year Caitlin Clark, the internal obstacles will need to be shorter than they were against Maryland. Fortunately, that Wednesday win might be what the team needs to do just that.
“Maryland has got such a great program,” said McGuff. “I’m kind of glad we put them before the Iowa game because there’s no way we’re going to overlook them with the success that they’ve had this program success that they had in this building. We knew this would be a really difficult game and we would have to play extremely well to win.”