To explain Ohio State’s improvement during her four years at Minnesota, Gophers coach Marlene Stollings had to draw on a WNBA example.

The Houston Comets, which won four straight WNBA championships starting with the league’s inaugural season in 1997, did so with a short bench.

“They played five people, so you can win that way as long as you stay healthy and you’re taking care of business,” Stollings said after her team’s 91-75 loss to Ohio State. “I think just the experience factor, you can really tell the difference in the experience on the floor.”

Ohio State primary played with six while Makayla Waterman was out of the lineup and will likely go the remainder of the season with seven plus a few minutes here or there for Jensen Caretti, but the product, without foul trouble and without serious injuries, is better than past Ohio State teams, as far as Stollings is concerned.

“Well, they’re very good. I’ll say that right away,” she said. “They’re very talented and as talented as I’ve seen in my four years going against them at Minnesota. So credit to them for that.

“I think that they’re experienced, for one. They have a lot of experience on the floor. They’re determined, they play very well together, their core group. Everyone knows they don’t have a lot of depth, especially at the guard position, but it hasn’t impacted them really so far. So if it works, it works.”

The key to beating a team like Ohio State, Stollings said, is making shots early. She brought up the Nov. 30 Duke game, in which the Blue Devils scored 26 first-quarter points and went 8 of 17 from three in a 69-60 win. Duke hit its first-quarter shots to put pressure on the Buckeyes. The Gophers could not, and Ohio State surged ahead in a 29-8 second quarter.

“Duke was on fire and knocking down shots and that’s really what you have to do to beat them,” Stollings said. “We had the looks, we didn’t knock them down and that second quarter really is a big difference for us, but we’re negative-21 in that second quarter and that really became the game.”

On the run

Ohio State’s lead was just 13-12 with 3:56 left in the first quarter when two things happened: Kelsey Mitchell made two stellar plays in 55 seconds and Minnesota went cold.

The Buckeyes finished the first quarter on a 7-0 run as the Gophers finished the quarter 1 for their last 12.

Ohio State continued that momentum into the second, putting together a 36-8 run over the final 13:56 of the first half to bury Minnesota.

“We’re a work in progress, obviously. I don’t think we would have done that last year or in previous games, but with a lot of work, a lot of film, a lot of going to practice and breaking down where we were bad before was a contribution to that 36-8 run,” Mitchell said. “I think we were stringing together a lot of stops and being able to turn it into a lot of positive offense and that was big for us today. “

Mavunga led the charge with 15 first-half points.

“She was really active,” coach Kevin McGuff said. “She ran the floor incredibly well and I thought tonight she really used her speed and quickness (to her) advantage and really moved around well and so that was a really good game for Steph.”

Ohio State further added to its advantage with a 25-19 third quarter, answering a challenge from McGuff.

“I was kind of challenging them at the half like, ‘Hey, if we want to keep being the team that goes like (a roller coaster), all right, knock yourself out,’” he said. “But they came out and kind of set their mind to it that they wanted to continue to do the things that allowed us to get that lead.”

Welcome back

Ohio State’s rotation grew to seven Thursday night as Makayla Waterman made her return from a left ankle injury.

The redshirt junior forward pedaled on a stationary bike near the Ohio State bench for a chunk of the first quarter but checked in to start the second quarter. Waterman had two points and three rebounds – two on the offensive end – in seven minutes, and should see her workload increase in the coming weeks.

Waterman sprained her left ankle early in a Dec. 17 win over Cincinnati and missed Ohio State’s first two games in Big Ten play.

“It was great to have her back. She was playing great minutes before she got hurt and I really liked how the rotation was and so it’s good to have her back in there,” McGuff said. “She’s an unselfish player, always seems to be in the right spot, makes the extra pass on offense, gets a tough rebound defensively, so just a lot of glue-type things that we were missing a little bit of, it was nice to see her back out there tonight.”

Waterman’s presence will continue to lighten the load for the rest of Ohio State’s rotation as she works her way back into form, but on Thursday McGuff didn’t need to risk increasing her workload in such a lopsided game.

Most of the starting lineup still got at least some rest, as Savitha Jayaraman played six minutes and Karlie Cronin and Chelsea Mitchell each played five.

“It helps a lot being able to rotate and be able to keep the momentum going,” senior guard Asia Doss said. “It’s just everyone coming in and doing what they have to do. It’s good for the team.”