For the past two months, Ohio State women’s basketball was like the excellent speller who knows she is smart but wonders how her brainpower matches up against that of the school genius.
The No. 12 Buckeyes had rattled off 14 wins in 15 games, including nine in a row entering Monday night’s Big Ten showdown against No. 2 Maryland. It would be unfair to suggest that during the eight-week stretch, Ohio State did not defeat a team of substance. But it’s not as if the Buckeyes had to spell bougainvillea, either.
They did, however, know what the word meant — a thorny vine — having encountered one on Dec. 19, when they got ensnared by No. 1 Connecticut, the last ranked team OSU played before Maryland visited Value City Arena.
The Terrapins showed up on a 14-game win streak, and their only loss was to UConn on Dec. 29, but it is worth noting that they, too, had not played a ranked opponent since losing to the Huskies.
So this was a litmus test. Ohio State knew it was good, but how good? Maryland was the spelling-bee savant, but were the Terps as special as advertised? We were about to find out.
Some background. Ohio State hired Kevin McGuff to replace Jim Foster in 2013 largely because the athletic department felt the program should be at the elite level. Under Foster, the Buckeyes won a record six Big Ten regular-season championships (2005 to ’10) and four Big Ten tournament titles, but they never advanced beyond the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament.
McGuff embraced the expectations of turning Ohio State into something resembling Stanford, Notre Dame or — don’t laugh — UConn.
“A lot of people probably were scared off by that. I saw it as a great opportunity,” McGuff said the day he was introduced to the media.
The Buckeyes appeared headed on the right path until last March, when Tennessee blew them off the court 78-62 in the Sweet 16. What happened? Ohio State got outsized and outhustled. Given the lopsided outcome, one could be reasonably suspicious of this season, despite the recent hot streak. So, again, Maryland presented a barometer for success.
Now to the game, which for the first 10 minutes resembled the Daytona oval as much as a race for the Big Ten regular-season title. In the first quarter, Ohio State was as good as it has ever been. Junior Kelsey Mitchell scored 15 of her 31 points before the crowd of 6,505 knew what had happened. And from the 7:04 mark of the first quarter to the 6:02 point of the second quarter, the Buckeyes did not miss a shot, going 15 for 15 over a span of 11:02.
“When you’ve got Kelsey Mitchell on the floor, that happens a lot,” McGuff said.
Then Mitchell went scoreless for 10:26, and Maryland (26-2) used a 14-0 run at the end of the third quarter to erase nearly all of a 15-point deficit.
Game on. It was as if the Buckeyes had forgotten how to spell W-I-N. But then they woke up, stopped making turnovers and held on for a 98-87 victory that showed a team built on toughness as much as talent.
The win was the Buckeyes' first over a team ranked No. 1 or No. 2 since 1993, when they lost in the national-title game.
“This shows we can certainly play with anybody in the country and we are among the best teams in the country,” McGuff said. “It’s a big win, but if this is the defining moment of our season, then it isn’t really what we wanted.”
What they want is the Elite Eight. At a minimum. I like how these Buckeyes are playing. And even more how they’re thinking.