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With Hoosiers looming, Ohio State women’s basketball benefit from facing Serah Williams

How the 6-foot-4 forward gives insight into how the Buckeyes will fair Sunday against Indiana’s Mackenzie Holmes.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Against the Wisconsin Badgers, it looked the Ohio State women’s basketball team was in for a tough night in the paint.

The reason is twofold. First, Badgers forward Serah Williams entered Thursday averaging a double-double. The other reason? Ohio State isn’t known as a good team against dominant post presence, to which Williams more than fits the description.

The Buckeyes eventual 87-49 victory showed two different scarlet and gray sides, especially on defense in the paint. It also previewed how things can go Sunday for Ohio State when it faces a similar, but more dangerous, threat in Indiana Hoosiers forward Mackenzie Holmes.

In the first quarter, the 6-foot-4 Williams was the Wisconsin Badgers. The sophomore scored six of Wisconsin’s 16 points and added six rebounds. When Williams wasn’t scoring the ball, it was because the Ohio State defense gave outside shooters time to shoot due to missing assignments and lacking the energy needed to get the Buckeyes’ defense off the ground.

When Williams did get the ball, which was often, there was nobody on head coach Kevin McGuff’s roster who could take on the task of facing the forward one-on-one.

Williams entered halftime with 12 points and eight rebounds in the first 20 minutes of the game. Even so, Ohio State still had a five-point lead. For the No. 8 team in the country, it wasn’t enough, and what was specifically said is likely to stay in the Buckeyes locker room.

“Probably shouldn’t say that here,” said McGuff. “But we had a spirited conversation at halftime. Just about our, really it was our mental energy. I thought our physical energy was fine, but we weren’t really locked in mentally.”

Queue the second half.

The third quarter was what the Buckeyes needed, and will have to replicate to compete with Indiana. Ohio State’s 39 points, featuring 29 points off turnovers, left Wisconsin reeling, with the Badgers scoring 11 points and giving the ball away 12 times in the quarter.

While Williams secured her seventh double-double in a row, the sophomore had four points and three rebounds in the second half — a vastly different defensive performance against the post star. Instead of going at Williams in solo matchups, the Buckeyes began crowding the forward so she couldn’t receive passes comfortably.

Now, there are differences between Williams and Holmes.

The Indiana star leads the Big Ten in shooting efficiency, hitting 66.8% of her shots. Holmes does this by going through and around defenders. Also, the All-American isn’t a sophomore. The graduate senior Holmes has played her fair share of difficult defenders in her years in Bloomington, Indiana.

Those are all solo attributes. The support cast for Indiana is better than those playing around Williams at Wisconsin. Senior guards Chloe Moore-McNeil and Sara Scalia aren’t only more experienced, with accolades to back up their play, than the freshman and sophomore heavy Badgers but part of one of the strongest overall groups of guards in the conference.

Even so, the defensive work rate alone, with a taller and more physical Williams, could pay dividends.

“It was good that we had to play a great post player tonight because we’re going to play obviously against Mackenzie on Sunday,” said McGuff. “Who’s one of the best in the country.”

Another aspect of Holmes’ game is great rebounding ability. The Buckeyes have a new rebounding force of their own in forward Cotie McMahon.

The shorter McMahon went up against Williams many times on Thursday, grabbing 10 rebounds to Williams’ 11. While the big out rebounded her, a few of those had McMahon directly in the thick of it with the four inches taller Williams. The improved rebounding is the continuation of the growth of McMahon, looking prepared as ever for a matchup with the Hoosiers.

Guard Madison Greene, who’s a leader of the team and has seen McMahon since the sophomore enrolled early at Ohio State in the spring of 2022, has noticed the change in McMahon at practice.

“She’s really doing a really good job at rebounding. I think that’s a big thing for her right now,” said Greene. “I think it's really starting to translate what she’s doing in practice in the game.”

McMahon’s 15 points, 10 rebounds and four assist performance double-double is the fourth in a row, after entering this season with three total in her freshman campaign. Indiana was on the other end of one of those double-doubles too, in the Big Ten Tournament semifinal.

In that historic victory, the Buckeyes came back from 25 points down to shock the Hoosiers behind McMahon’s 12 points and 14 rebounds.

The Centerville, Ohio native is a star who’s growing brighter game-by-game in 2024, but Thursday showed that she can’t do it alone if the Buckeyes hope to lock in on Holmes like it did against Williams in the second half.

With the Schottenstein Center opening the upper bowl of seats again, like it did against the Iowa Hawkeyes on Jan. 21, the Buckeyes will need a performance like it had against superstar guard Caitlin Clark and the then No. 2 ranked Hawkeyes. That and the added defensive work in the paint from Thursday.