Each season, surprise teams join the conversation early in the season, but the early success doesn’t last. The Minnesota Golden Gophers fit that definition, but with a good reason for the eventual fall.
Thursday night, Ohio State women’s basketball faces the Golden Gophers for the only time in the regular season. Although Minnesota is without its star, the Buckeyes can’t look past Minnesota — especially because of the team’s remaining strength.
Guard Mara Braun’s injury was devastating for Minnesota. In the fourth quarter against the Illinois Fighting Illini, Braun injured her right foot when she landed on the foot of an Illini defender. The next morning, Braun had surgery and was ruled out for the remainder of the season. It leaves an irreplaceable hole for the Golden Gophers.
Braun is only a sophomore, but in her first year in Minneapolis, Braun already led the Gophers in points. This year, Braun was scoring more and improving her game all-around. After having a successful summer with Team USA 3x3, the sophomore was scoring, rebounding and assisting higher than her freshman year, fitting comfortably as the player Minnesota can build around in the future.
Now, Minnesota is struggling in ways that bode well for the Buckeyes’ strengths. Namely, turnovers. Without Braun on the court attracting attention, and in-turn leaving teammates open, the Gophers are turning the ball over.
In the first 20 games of the season, Minnesota averaged 12.2 turnovers per game. Since Braun’s injury, two losses ended with 15 and 18 turnovers. In the 18-turnover defeat, the Michigan State Spartans used a full court press, not too dissimilar to the Buckeyes’, to come away with a 12-point victory.
Replacing Braun is fifth year senior Janay Sanders. Before Minnesota, Sanders played three seasons at Appalachian State after playing her freshman season at La Salle. Since joining the starting roster, Sanders has 36 points in two games, but not from beyond the arc like Braun. Although, Sanders attacking the paint combines with the way Minnesota could expose Ohio State: Through the post.
Minnesota isn’t like many teams in NCAA women’s basketball. First-year Golden Gophers head coach Dawn Plitzuweit starts two guards, but then a pair of forwards along with a center. In the power forward and center roles are Mallory Heyer and Sophia Hart.
Last January, in Minnesota, Heyer scored 15 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. In that game, the Gophers outscored the Buckeyes 42 to 30 in the paint, leading Ohio State by 10 points with four minutes remaining in the third quarter. This year, Hart makes the side even more formidable.
Hart joined the Golden Gophers in the offseason, transferring from NC State. The junior stands at 6-foot-5, but never started for the Wolfpack in two seasons. This year, the center averages 5.1 rebounds per game. The big isn’t as agile as centers like Wisconsin’s Serah Williams or Indiana’s Mackenzie Holmes, but Ohio State already has its struggles against strong post players and Minnesota has two.
Regardless, the Buckeyes are riding a nine-game winning streak, including wins over then No. 2 Iowa Hawkeyes and No. 10 Indiana Hoosiers. Overall, the Golden Gophers are still a young team, with Sanders and Hart the lone upperclassmen receiving substantial minutes — and they’re both first-year players with Minnesota.
The advantage is the Buckeyes’ to take. Guards Jacy Sheldon and Celeste Taylor will face Sanders and sophomore Amaya Battle. Sheldon and Taylor have shown already this season that they’re not an easy duo to beat. As long as Taylor stays out of foul trouble early, Minnesota will find it difficult building confidence in the first half.
Thursday’s game has a big night written all over it for forward Cotie McMahon. Wednesday, at media availability, head coach Kevin McGuff shared that McMahon was upset to not get double-double against the Hoosiers on Sunday. McMahon can go at the Gophers’ bigs and find open teammates.
Should Ohio State convert them closer to the performance against Indiana, hitting 42.9% from beyond the arc, there won’t be much Minnesota can do to stop the Buckeyes.
G- Jacy Sheldon
G- Celeste Taylor
G- Taylor Thierry
F- Cotie McMahon
F- Rebeka Mikulášikova
- Guard Jacy Sheldon’s 25 points on Sunday put her at 35 career games scoring at least 20 points.
- Ohio State is on a 12-game winning streak against the Minnesota Golden Gophers, although three of those were vacated due to NCAA violations.
- Forward Taylor Thierry won 17 of the Buckeyes’ 22 jump balls to start games this season
G- Amaya Battle
G- Janay Sanders
F- Grace Grocholski
F- Mallory Heyer
C- Sophie Hart
- Forward Mallory Meyer is fourth in the Big Ten in rebounds per game with 8.3
- As a team, Minnesota is third in the conference in rebounding, averaging 40.3 per game.
- Since guard Mara Braun’s injury, point guard Amaya Battle has had 17 turnovers in two games. In the previous 20 games, Battle averages 3.1 turnovers per game.
Without Braun, the Golden Gophers lack the bite needed to beat the Buckeyes. Ohio State will have a down quarter in the first half, as usual, but it’s the scarlet and gray’s game to lose.
The Buckeyes will force turnovers — at least 20 — and make three-point shots at a regular clip. That’ll go through McMahon, who will hit a double-double after not reaching the mark against the Indiana Hoosiers.
How to Watch
Date: Thursday, February 7, 2024
Time: 9:00 p.m. ET
Where: Williams Arena, Minneapolis, Minnesota
LGHL Prediction: 86-60 Ohio State Buckeyes
Week of Accolades
This week, three Buckeyes earned weekly and season-long recognition. For games last week, the USBWA (U.S. Basketball Writers Association) gave Sheldon a spot in its weekly starting five. Also, the Big Ten gave McMahon a spot on the weekly honor roll.
On the annual honor, the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame awards put Taylor on the Defensive Player of the Year midseason team. Taylor’s 81.6 defensive rating is third in the Big Ten.