LEXINGTON, Ky. — Ohio State left Rupp Arena on Friday night after a 23-point loss to Notre Dame in the Sweet 16 of the Women’s NCAA Tournament knowing it won't need to rebuild.
A recharge of the batteries, however, might be in order.
The Buckeyes (28-7) ripped through the Big Ten season with a 15-1 record and a share of the regular-season title, defeating then-No. 2 Maryland to get there. They advanced to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season and regularly outlasted teams with the best depth Ohio State has had in years.
Notre Dame is one of the best teams in the nation, to be sure, but this is an Ohio State team that began the season with deep-tournament goals and expectations. The Buckeyes ended in a similar place to March 2016 — with a head-scratching Sweet 16 loss and plenty of promise for next season.
A peek at next season starts with junior point guard Kelsey Mitchell, twice the Big Ten player of the year and, barring an injury, a near-lock to break Ohio State's career scoring record, along with several others.
Those reasons, along with the promise of an academic degree, another year in the company of her twin sister and teammate, Chelsea, and her father, Ohio State assistant Mark Mitchell, and having next year’s Final Four in Columbus make it seem unlikely Mitchell will skip her senior year and enter next month’s WNBA draft.
Minutes after a difficult loss Friday, Mitchell kept things open-ended.
"I haven't even thought that far. I'm just going to take this loss and soak in it," said Mitchell, who added she did not have a deadline in place for a decision. "That's it. That's all there is to it."
Mitchell took the tone of a player with something to prove next season, expressing her desire to help lead a team expected to return nine of its top 10 scorers, graduating only Shayla Cooper. She said she’ll work this summer to return as “the most versatile player ever.”
Mitchell said Friday taught the Buckeyes about a need for growth, that a humbling loss can start a team culture of “outworking others.”
"We've been through a lot as a team," Mitchell said. "I think this game has taught us a lot about ourselves and where we need to grow as players and as people in general."
Ohio State's exit from Rupp Arena officially kicked off what coach Kevin McGuff labeled a "great opportunity" in the 2017-18 season.
He feels he has the right players in his program. Growth between Marches will go a long way in determining whether the Buckeyes can take the next step — ending an Elite Eight drought that stretches to 1993.
"We'll get back," McGuff said. "We'll get a little bit of rest, and we'll put a plan together to make sure we have a great spring, summer and fall, and we'll be ready to go next year."