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The Ohio State women’s basketball press avoids letdown game against Illinois

How defense won the day and taught the Buckeyes a valuable lesson

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 25 Women’s - Ohio State at Illinois Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When Ohio State women’s basketball comes up in conversation or game commentary, the full-court press inevitably comes to the forefront. It's a defensive strategy built on speed and chaos that head coach Kevin McGuff employs to disrupt opponents from their offensive plans.

As of late though, it’s been a preseason defensive goal for the Scarlet and Gray’s coming to fruition: An improved half-court defense.

Entering Thursday’s game against the struggling but improving Illinois Fighting Illini, the Buckeyes weren’t winning games with turnovers but with solid defense, once opponents made it over the half-court line.

In the first 15 games of the season, Ohio State had a turnover margin of +8, meaning the Buckeyes averaged eight more forced turnovers than it was giving it away.

On Jan. 14, against the Michigan State Spartans, that changed. Ohio State forced only eight turnovers, a season-low, and instead kept the Michigan State team who averaged 89.9 points per game scoring 65. Thanks to defenders keeping assignments, closing in on shooters, and the Spartans in response missing more than normal.

Rinse and repeat against the Maryland Terrapins and Iowa Hawkeyes. Although the full-court press was used at times, it took a backseat to the more traditional half-court grind.

Thursday night, Ohio State faced a Fighting Illini side that’s second in the conference in protecting the ball, behind the Spartans, averaging 11.4 turnovers per game. That average rose against the Buckeyes, and Ohio State needed that press to bring the team back to Earth following a historically bad second quarter.

That isn’t hyperbole either. the Buckeyes scored four points in the second quarter. Good enough for the lowest point total scored in a quarter by any team in Scarlet and Gray program history.

Defensively, Illinois shot 50% from the floor and from beyond the arc, compared to 22.2% and 0% to the visiting side. In rebounding, after going toe-to-toe with forward Kendall Bostic and the Fighting Illini in the first quarter, Coach McGuff’s side was outrebounded 13 to 4 in the second. Things weren’t going great for the Buckeyes, entering the halftime locker room down 22-33.

“I told them, ‘In this league, you can’t show up and just think you’re going to win. We’re going to take everybody’s best shot,’” said McGuff. “You have to play with the intensity and the focus that we played with in the second half if you want to win.”

The message was received clearly in the third quarter. Ohio State trimmed the 11-point Illinois lead to three in a quarter where the Fighting Illini almost reached its turnovers per game average in 10 minutes, giving the ball away 10 times. Guard Jacy Sheldon led the Buckeyes with two steals in the quarter.

After the game, the graduate senior took responsibility for the press not working initially, as the leader of the first line of defenders in the press. Sheldon also explained how it turned the game around.

“We kind of let them throw it over our heads, which kind of screws with the whole press,” said Sheldon. “So I think just making sure we stay behind them and letting them get it in if that makes sense. Everything else fell into place. Easier to navigate kind of where to go in that press and then Rikki (Harris) made some good plays. Celeste (Taylor) made some really good plays. And we kind of turned our defense into offense there.”

That work continued into the fourth quarter, pushing Illinois to its second-worst turnover performance of the season, giving the ball away 20 times. Outside of a couple of steals and solo fast-break opportunities, the Buckeyes didn’t panic when the ball was turned over. Instead, the team went into another offensive play.

Behind a game-leading 25 points for Sheldon and 14 points for Taylor (all coming in the second half), the Buckeyes held a calm demeanor, despite the deficit. It was a similar response against the Iowa Hawkeyes in Sunday’s 100-92 Ohio State victory. Down 12 points in the fourth quarter, the scarlet and gray had to find another gear to turn things around.

With Thursday’s game coming four days after such a monumental win in a loud home atmosphere for the Buckeyes, the Illini looked like a potential letdown game, and the first half had all the characteristics of one. Ultimately the win in Champaign, Illinois becomes a learning lesson.

“I feel like anybody that they would have put after us would have given us some match-up,” said Taylor. “And, you know, that’s just us trying to handle success, us trying to handle winning a huge game like that and then coming and turning around and not letting that hinder us, rather push us forward to continue to excel and continue on our peak up until March”

On Sunday, Feb. 4, the Buckeyes face its second toughest conference home game of the season, against the Indiana Hoosiers. The crimson, like Iowa, mostly had Ohio State’s number last season, outside of what could be called a miraculous 25-point comeback in the Big Ten tournament semifinal. In the regular season, it was all Indiana.

Between that Sunday noon game and now, the scarlet and gray have two teams on the bottom half of the Big Ten schedule in the Purdue Boilermakers and the Wisconsin Badgers. Each team looking at a game against Ohio State as a means to inject themselves into the conversation.

That Thursday escape act gives the Buckeyes a reminder to focus on the present and ignore everything else.