INDIANAPOLIS — The Ohio State women’s basketball team is a proud bunch that is used to winning games by the fistful, but it never experienced more humility than on a Monday night in January in College Park, Maryland.
That night, Maryland routed the Buckeyes 99-69 for one of the worst basketball experiences of their young lives.
The bruised feelings from that game on Jan. 22 became a footnote to the season when Ohio State gave Maryland a smacking right back in winning the Big Ten tournament championship game 79-69 on Sunday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
It was the fifth conference championship for the Buckeyes (27-6) and their first since 2011. The Terrapins (25-7) were going after an unprecedented fourth straight championship.
“On that particular night they really gave us a beat down,” coach Kevin McGuff said of the loss. “Woody Hayes used to say that nothing cleanses the soul until you get a (butt)-kicking. Until you get punched in the face like that sometimes you don’t get it. I’m really proud of my team because this is a great conference, as good as it has been since I’ve been here.”
Speculation has Ohio State being a possible third seed in the NCAA Tournament and a cinch to host first- and second-round games in Columbus.
Kelsey Mitchell, who was voted most outstanding player of the Big Ten tournament, led the Buckeyes with 25 points. She was followed by Stephanie Mavunga with 15 points and 12 rebounds, Linnae Harper with 14 points and 11 rebounds and Sierra Calhoun with 13 points.
The Buckeyes took a 55-37 lead when Mitchell heaved a 70-foot, two-handed pass to Mavunga for a layup with 5:07 left in the third quarter.
But it took a gut check down the stretch after Maryland (25-7) had a 20-6 run to close to 61-57 on a three-pointer by Kristen Confroy with 6:32 left in the game.
Ohio State responded with an 11-2 run that had NBA written all over it. Mitchell started it with a long three-pointer and Harper ended it with a driving layup that made it 72-62 with 2:33 left.
“Coach called timeout and he said we have to come together as a team,” Harper said. “We communicated and played together.”
The smiles on the players’ faces, particularly forward Makayla Waterman, indicated that, “We’ve got this.”
“Teams make runs when you are playing in the Big Ten tournament,” Mitchell said. “We knew things would happen. We stayed focused and dialed in for 40 minutes. This feels good because we’ve been through so much as a team and program. To get to take home some hardware feels good. We’re going to take every bit of this, utilize it and have some fun with it.”
The happiest Buckeye might have been Mavunga. The senior center is from nearby Brownsburg, Indiana, and she played with a fury.
“This is what you grind for, this is what the offseason is for, this is what preseason is for and day in and day out coming to practice and executing offensively and defensively,” Mavunga said. “We wanted to bring it back to Columbus and had to scratch, fight and claw for it.”
McGuff said before tip-off that Maryland had not been shooting well and that intense defense and rebounding would be keys to winning.
In the first half alone, Harper got nine rebounds, including two that resulted in layups.
“I think it was the mentality that we developed in practice,” she said. “We had some ups and downs, but we had to keep going at the glass. We knew Maryland was a great team and how we had to play.”