Yesterday’s win over Minnesota in the first round of the Big Ten tournament was huge for the Ohio State women’s basketball team’s hopes of making the NCAA tournament. Today’s matchup with top seeded and 7th ranked Penn State was an opportunity for the Buckeyes to improve their NCAA resume and virtually assure themselves a spot in the Big Dance. This was also a chance for OSU to get some revenge after Penn State overcame a halftime deficit to beat the Buckeyes in their only regular season meeting.
The game started out as a tight, back-and-forth defensive battle with both teams having to work hard to get an open look. The opening five minutes saw both team trading baskets with neither able to open up more than a three point lead. Ohio State led 14-13 at the fourteen minute mark but then Penn State scored six straight points to take a 19-14 lead just a minute and a half later and it seemed like the Nittany Lions were poised to take control of the game. The Buckeyes responded though, getting some defensive stops which led to some nice layups as OSU scored 8 straight to take the lead, 22-19, with eight minutes remaining in the half. The teams would go back to trading baskets for the next few minutes and OSU managed to extend its lead to 29-24 with just under five minutes left in the half. The Nittany Lions closed out the half strong though, going on a 9 to 2 run to close the half and to take a 33-31 lead into halftime.
The second half opened the same way the first half did with both teams trading baskets and the score was tied at 39 three minutes into the half. At this point some timely three pointers by Big Ten Player of the Year Maggie Lucas and some Ohio State turnovers helped Penn State go on 14 to 2 run take a 53-41 lead with twelve and a half minutes remaining on the clock. While the Nittany Lions had substituted a fair amount in the first half, the Buckeyes had played their starters the entire opening period and the fatigue from that and playing the previous day started to show for OSU in the form of offensive miscues and struggling to get back on defense. Penn State continued to take advantage as they continued to score and answer every Buckeye attempt to make a comeback while extending their lead to 68-50 with five minutes remaining. Buckeye seniors Tayler Hill and Amber Stokes, realizing that their careers were possibly almost over, took over for the scarlet and gray, combining to score the next 7 points to cut the Nittany Lion lead to 68-57 with three and a half to go. Penn State responded by scoring 5 of the next 7 points but then a pair of three pointers from Hill made it a 73-65 game with fifty seconds remaining. Hill stole the ball on the next PSU possession and got fouled on a three point shot but missed two of her three freebies and that would do it for the Buckeyes as Penn State would end up with a 76-66 win.
Both teams shot well in this game with Ohio State shooting 43% while Penn State hit 49% from the field. Both teams also did great from outside as the Nittany Lions went 6 of 11 from beyond-the-arc while the Buckeyes had their best three point shooting day in a long time, going 6 of 14. OSU recorded 19 assists on 25 baskets while committing 11 turnovers and forcing 12 turnovers. A major difference was how well the teams took advantage of the turnovers as PSU scored 14 points off turnovers compared to only 5 from the Buckeyes.
Tayler Hill led the Buckeyes with 23 points, becoming only the fifth OSU player to break the 2,000 point mark and passing Samantha Prahalis for fourth place on the program all-time scoring list. Hill had her best three point shooting day in a long time, going 5 of 9 from outside, and she added three assists and a steal. Amber Stokes also made a major mark in her final Big Ten tournament game, scoring a career high 18 points while grabbing 5 rebounds, dishing out 4 assists, and coming up with 5 steals. Ashley Adams also scored in double figures, tallying 13 points to go along with 8 rebounds and 3 assists. Raven Ferguson added 9 points while also grabbing 9 boards.
For much of the first half of the season Coach Foster had played a relatively deep bench with lots of players seeing action. Toward the end of the season Foster shortened the bench considerably and this was understandable considering how much the Buckeyes had struggled earlier in the season, don’t want to mess with something that is suddenly working. Only playing 7 or 8 players a game, with the vast majority of the minutes still going to the starters, is fine during the regular season as 18 to 22 year old kids have a lot of energy and tend to be able to recover with two or three days between games. However when you hit the Big Ten tournament the short bench becomes more of a problem as you have to play games on back-to-back days. The Buckeye starters played most of the game yesterday and had great energy in that one and the first half today. However, as the game wore on today fatigue started to show as the offense stopped moving the ball as much and started committing more turnovers while on the defensive end players struggled a bit to get back, finding themselves out of position and fouling because of it. After doing a great job of reversing the ball in the first half, OSU failed to do so for long stretches of the second half and Penn State took advantage to grow their lead.
While the fatigue was evident in everyone, it had the biggest impact on Ashley Adams who wasn’t nearly as effective in the second half as she was in the first. Adams had the tough job of going up against Nikki Greene, one of the conference’s best post players, and in the first half she more than held her own. The second half was a different story as Greene adjusted her defense, fronting Adams more to deny the pass, and Adams didn’t have the energy to properly adjust, effectively taking her out of the game.
Tayler Hill and Amber Stokes did a great job in the closing minutes, finding a reserve of energy fueled by a desire to keep their careers going and they did manage to put a scare in Penn State. Unfortunately the Nittany Lion lead was too large and Hill and Stokes just didn’t have enough in the tank to pull off the amazing comeback.
This loss will sting for Ohio State as a team that started the season ranked in the top 20 probably never thought that they wouldn’t make at least the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament. More importantly the loss means that OSU’s NCAA tournament fate is no longer in their hands and the Buckeyes will have to sit and wait for over a week until selection Monday when they will learn their fate. After a rough two months in the middle of the season, OSU closed strong, winning 7 of their last 10 games. That stretch included wins against Michigan and Michigan State who will both be going to the dance and against Minnesota and Illinois who were bubble teams and in the RPI top 100. A better performance against Penn State would have certainly helped, a win would have been even better, but the Nittany Lions are a top 10 team and the loss shouldn’t hurt OSU too much. At this point it is tough to get a good feel on Ohio State’s chances as the women’s selection committee tends to be less predictable than the men’s committee. The women’s committee has made several decisions over the years which seemed to be very obviously based on concern for ticket sales and thus the fact that OSU is hosting the first two rounds will work to their advantage. I would say that the Buckeyes are 50-50 at this point in terms of making the NCAA tournament and I will be very nervous while watching the selection show in a week and a half.