INDIANAPOLIS – The thought of Ohio State getting its feet out of the mud and coming back to defeat Minnesota in a Big Ten women’s tournament semifinal seemed to be out of the question with time ticking off the scoreboard in the fourth quarter.

The Buckeyes were throwing the basketball all over the place Saturday night in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, clanking one free throw after another off the rim and running plays as if they were five strangers.

The Gophers took an 85-79 lead with 4:40 left when guard Kenisha Bell took a rebound and dribbled unmolested the length of the floor to the rim for a layup.

The deficit was just six points – a two-possession game – but navigating the Cumberland Trail in a downpour might have been easier.Two minutes and one second later, it was the Gophers who had no clue at either end of the court and Ohio State wound up running off the court with a 90-88 victory.

The Buckeyes (26-6) will play for their fifth conference tournament championship and first since 2011 against Maryland (25-6) at 7 p.m. Sunday.

In all probability, they locked up the right to host first- and second-round NCAA tournament games provided they don’t have a disastrous performance against the Terrapins.

“Just keep fighting," Buckeyes coach Kevin McGuff said he told the team. “I thought for a stretch in the third quarter Minnesota played harder than we did, and I thought we played harder in the fourth quarter. They were getting a lot of 50-50 balls, and we were getting them down the stretch. That was what we kept emphasizing - to just make sure we kept playing hard. We got all the 50-50 balls and we continued to compete."

How could Ohio State win when it was 5-for-19 from the floor in the fourth quarter? Well, just hold your opponent to 3-for-17, get two vital offensive rebounds that enabled you to take precious seconds off the clock and generally play as though you are fighting for the right to stay on the court on the playground.

Center Stephanie Mavunga said it paid to be a senior knowing the games in her career are running out. She totaled 26 points and 21 rebounds to become the first player in Big Ten tournament history with a 20-20 in those categories. Her rebounds were a single-game tournament record. She blocked seven shots.

She also had a lot of motivation because of coming from nearby Brownsburg, Ind.

“It means a lot," Mavunga said. “It’s truly an honor to wear The Ohio State University across my chest every single time I get to compete out here. We have so many seniors and to know you can’t take things for granted."

Linnae Harper started Ohio State’s mini-comeback with a 12-foot jumper in the lane with 4:01 left.

The shot of the night had to be guard Kelsey Mitchell storming toward the basket from the left side at a sharp angle and banking a runner off the backboard into the basket with a defender all over her. She made the free throw, and the deficit was one point with 3:17 remaining.

Harper picked off a pass in the backcourt on Minnesota’s next possession, and forward Alexa Hart banked in a short jumper for an 86-85 lead with 2:39 left.
“We were very selfless down the stretch," Mavunga said.

Mavunga blocked two shots, the second on Gophers star guard Carlie Wagner on a three-point attempt with 20 seconds left.

What went wrong

What put the Buckeyes in a big fix again was shoddy defense. Wagner scored 19 points in the first quarter and had 24 at halftime. Bell dribbled to the basket in the second half for layups or free throws. She was 11-for-14 from the line.

McGuff said a major problem was not having senior guard Asia Doss, the team leader with 51 steals, a second straight game because of a sprained right ankle.

 “I think the biggest thing was just our defense," McGuff said. “They were really fast. I knew the game would be up-tempo. When we were good in transition defense I thought that was significantly impactful and when we weren’t it was really bad for us. That was one byproduct of not having Asia in the game. She is one player who is always getting back, and we had people not used to getting back. I thought that really hurt us."

What is the potential for Doss, who had played in 134 straight games before this tournament, playing against Maryland? She was in a walking boot again.

“She talks to the doctor every day," McGuff said. “She wants to play and it’s close. But the first two days it has been a decision of how we can get her back to 100 percent for the (NCAA) tournament, and we’ve erred on that side to this point.’’

Can anybody make a freebie?

There was one word to describe Ohio State’s free throw shooting: Weird.

The team was 8-for-9 in the first half, but missed nine of the first 10 in the second and finished 14-for-28.

“Yeah, it was weird," McGuff said. “We’re usually a pretty good free throw shooting team. But somehow that happens. You get on a run the wrong way and that happens. We made it a little harder than it needed to be down the stretch."

The misfires began with Mavunga failed to complete a three-point play with 5:01 left in the third quarter. Mavunga and Harper missed both ends of free throw chances at 3:06 and 2:36 of the quarter, and it snowballed from there.

Alexa Hart could have sealed the win, but missed 1 of 2 free throws twice, with 19 and 14.1 seconds left. Makayla Waterman missed two free throws with 4.5 seconds left.

Statistically speaking

Mitchell has scored 240 points in nine Big Ten tournament games and needs 18 to surpass Ohio State’s Jantel Lavender for the all-time lead. Lavender played in 10 games from 2009-11.

Mavunga has made 17 of 22 shots from the floor for 77.2 percent in two tournament games. Her seven blocks against Minnesota are seventh most in a conference tournament game.

About Maryland

The Terrapins are a different type of turtle this season in that they have only two seniors and two juniors on the roster and three sophomores are among their top four scorers.

Maryland reached 30 victories in each of the previous three seasons, and there is a lot of work to do for this team to get that many.

Ohio State, though, has great respect after being routed 99-69 at College Park, Md. That was the middle game of a terrible January slide that included a 84-75 loss to Michigan and 103-89 loss to Iowa.

 “Yeah, obviously we played them once this year,’’ Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. “It’s about just continuing to be who we are. We’ve continued to find a way this year with this team. The success we’ve had is when we’ve played within ourselves.’’

The Terrapins are trying to become the first team in the 25-year history of the conference tournament to win four straight championships. The streak began with a 77-74 victory over Ohio State in ’15.

Maryland got this far with a 66-53 victory over Nebraska in the other semifinal. It was the team’s third victory over the Cornhuskers this season.

Fifty-nine points and 29 of 39 rebounds came from Kaila Charles, Eleanna Christinaki, Ieshia Small and Brianna Fraser. The quartet was 21-for-43 shooting. The rest of the team shot 2-for-9.

“I’m just looking forward to the moment,’’ Small said of the title game. “Not a lot of teams get to go to the Big Ten championship. We’re not going to be happy just to be there. We’re coming there to win. This is my last Big Ten tournament and I’m just happy we’re able to get this far. (If) we play the best that we can, the outcome will come."

mznidar@dispatch.com

@markznidar