Coming off one of their best team games of the year in Monday’s win over Michigan State, the Ohio State women’s basketball team looked to build some momentum with tonight’s game at Illinois. This was the last road game of the year for the Buckeyes, which must come as a relief to a team that has really struggled on the road over the past two seasons. Those road struggles also meant that this game was really important for OSU, not only as it would tell us if the good performance against Sparty was indicative of things to come or was just a mere blip but also because a road win would greatly help the Buckeyes’ case to sneak into the NCAA tournament.
The game started out as a back and forth affair which resulted in the game being tied at 9 seven minutes into the game. The importance of this game for the postseason hopes of both teams was apparently early as both teams played energetic defense but also had moments of sloppy play on offense which led to turnovers. After a good shooting start by Ohio State, their shooting went cold and Illinois took advantage to go on a 7 to 2 run to take a 16-11 lead with eight minutes remaining in the half. The Buckeyes responded though, scoring six straight to take a 17-16 lead just over six minutes on the clock. The lead bounced back and forth for a couple minutes before OSU went on an 8 to 2 run to take a 27-22 lead with two and a half minutes remaining. The two teams would trade baskets the rest of the way and when the buzzer sounded for halftime Ohio State had a 31-26 lead.
Despite a shooting slump in the middle of the first half, Ohio State finished the half hitting 40% of their shots from the field but missed their only three point attempt. The Buckeyes built their lead largely at the free throw line where they went 9 of 10 as every starter for Illinois picked up at least one foul. OSU did struggle with turnovers, committing 9 of them which kept them from taking advantage of all their opportunities. Fortunately the Buckeye defense played well for most of the half and forced 8 Illini turnovers.
After only scoring three points, all off free throws, in the first half, Tayler Hill opened the second half with a three pointer and Ohio State would stretch their lead to 36-26 in just over a minute of action. Illinois quickly got their offense going and responded with six straight points to make it a 36-32 Buckeye lead with just over sixteen minutes remaining. OSU regained their double digit lead with six unanswered of their own and the two teams began trading baskets. Thanks to a series of five fouls by Illinois in a three minute span, Ohio State was able to stretch its lead to 51-37 with nine minutes remaining. The two teams would trade baskets the rest of the way with the Buckeyes answering every attempt by the Illini to cut into the deficit as Ohio State pulled off the 64-53 win.
After a good first half of shooting, Ohio State was scorching in the second half, hitting 58% of their shots to finish the game 48% from the field and 1 of 5 from three point range. The OSU offense did struggle with taking care of the ball, committing 22 turnovers while only recording 12 assists; nobody seemed to be able to get a good handle on the ball tonight. Defensively the Buckeyes played a great game, holding Illinois to 30% shooting (24% in the second half) and forcing 21 turnovers. The rebounding stats were pretty much even, 34 to 35, but the Buckeyes still need to improve on the offensive boards as they grabbed 8 offensive rebounds to 17 for Illinois.
After only scoring 3 points in the first half, Tayler Hill looked like a different player in the second half as she attacked the basket on the way to scoring a team leading 21 points. Hill did most of her damage at the free throw line where she was 12 of 14; Hill was 4 of 12 from the field but many of those shots were altered due to her being fouled. Ashley Adams also had a great game, posting a double-double with 17 points and 10 rebounds while also blocking 4 shots. Darryce Moore came off the bench to add 12 points on 6 of 8 shooting while Ameryst Alston added 8 points.
Illinois has struggled all season with fouling issues and Ohio State did a good job of noting that in their preparations for this game as they repeatedly attacked the basket, drawing fouls; Illinois would be charged with 23 fouls in the game, have one player foul out and three others have to play with 4 fouls each. In general the officials called the game tight and OSU also had to deal with foul trouble that forced Ashley Adams and Raven Ferguson to the bench for stretches of time. The Buckeyes did a good job dealing with this though thanks to the efforts off the bench; Darryce Moore was a big offensive force in the first half while Amy Scullion was all over the court making an impact defensively.
Tonight’s road win was only the fourth of the year for Ohio State and was a big one coming on senior night for an Illinois team that had staged a second half rally to defeat the Buckeyes in Columbus back in January. Just like in that game Ohio State had a small halftime lead tonight but unlike that game the Buckeyes didn’t slip in the second half, in fact the Buckeyes played even better after the break to open up a double digit lead and pretty much control the last ten minutes of the game.
Tonight’s win gives Ohio State only its second winning streak of the Big Ten season this year and while the previous three game winning streak turned out to just be a tease, this one looks much more impressive than that previous streak which featured narrow wins over Wisconsin and Northwestern. After several games of atrocious shooting from pretty much the entire team, the Buckeyes have now shot over 40% in two straight games and those games may be the best games that OSU has played all season from an entire team perspective. Against Michigan State on Monday all five Buckeye starters reached double digits while tonight two starters and a bench player hit double figures while another starter was close. The Buckeyes dealt with foul trouble and a brief shooting slump in the first half but shook them off, stepped up, and controlled the game down the stretch. Turnovers remain an issue but OSU found a way to win despite those, this team is finally fighting.
The improvement in shooting over the last two games is probably the most welcome sign from this team but the energy that they are playing with now isn’t far behind. After Monday’s win over Michigan State, Spartan head coach Suzy Merchant said that after watching film this year she didn’t think that the Buckeyes could play as hard as they did against her team. While Merchant’s comment stung, it is pretty accurate considering how the team had played for most of the year. I don’t know what has changed, whether it was something Foster did, the seniors realizing that their careers are almost over, the whole team realizing that their back was against the wall as their postseason hopes hung by less than a thread, or something else. I don’t know what it was and I don’t care, all I care about is this team finally is showing some fire and fight and they are going to need it over the next week and a half if they want to keep their streak of NCAA appearances going.
Before they can worry about making the NCAA tournament, or even dealing with the Big Ten tournament, the Buckeyes have a big hurdle still in front of them. When you think Ohio State sports you think about ending seasons against Michigan and the Big Ten scheduling computer realized that this year as the Buckeyes and Wolverines will square off in their lone regular season meeting this year on Sunday in Value City Arena. The game will be senior night Emilee Harmon, Amber Stokes, and Tayler Hill so emotions will be riding high. Add in the postseason being on the line and the game being against your rival and the emotions and energy should be through the roof and hopefully the Buckeyes will come out and play with the intensity they have showed the past two games. The game will tip off at noon on Sunday and will be shown on BTN.