INDIANAPOLIS – Ohio State center Stephanie Mavunga had an immediate response when asked about having to play three games in 80 hours in order to win a Big Ten women’s conference tournament championship. 

“Coach (Kevin) McGuff said we can rest on Monday,’’ she said.

The Buckeyes won their fifth championship with a 79-69 victory over Maryland on Sunday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

McGuff did give the players the day off Monday and will give them another on Tuesday before getting back at it Wednesday afternoon. But they won’t start the NCAA tournament until March 16 at the earliest because the Big Ten tournament was held one week earlier than usual.

“Yeah, it is important that you manage (the time off), especially for us,’’ McGuff said. “I feel like we’ve played our best basketball here of late, and we don’t want to lose that edge. But it’s a good chance for us to get a little bit of rest. We’ve had some people play a lot of minutes.’’

The best part of the layoff, he said, was the team worrying only about itself.

“You can focus on getting better, so we’ll do that,’’ he said. “We’ll practice really hard here during the middle of the week and then take some time off (during the) weekend.’’

Ohio State (27-6) probably will host first- and second-round NCAA tournament games for a number of reasons:

They won the regular-season and post-season championships in a conference that is ranked third nationally behind the Atlantic Coast and Southeastern. They had the seventh most difficult schedule in the country and had an RPI of six before this past weekend’s games. They have jumped to 10th from 13th in The Associated Press poll.

Ohio State had one rocky stretch when it lost consecutive games to Michigan (84-75), Maryland (99-69) and Iowa (103-89) from Jan. 16 to 25. There also was an 84-65 blowout loss on Feb. 11 at South Florida.

McGuff has reiterated that the season is a marathon and there are plenty of ups and downs.

“You know, obviously it’s always our goal to play our best basketball at this time of year, and I feel like we’re playing better defensively and rebounding better,’’ he said. “I also think we’re sharing the ball and generating better shots than we were at certain times during the year.’’

The Buckeyes showed great toughness and resolve playing three games without senior guard Asia Doss because of a sprained right ankle. A 90-88 semifinal victory over Minnesota and the Maryland game had to be played at high intensity for 40 minutes.

“I thought what really stood out over the last couple of days is, No. 1 we stayed together and we fought through two really tough games,’’ he said. “The second thing is we got contributions from a lot of people like Makayla Waterman. She was absolutely huge in that first half (against Maryland). Jensen Caretti made some game-winning plays against Minnesota.’’

Senior guard Linnae Harper stands 5 feet 8, but she played tall against Maryland in totaling 14 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and three steals. She had nine rebounds in the first half with two resulting in put-backs.

“Honestly, I think it just started on defense, just trying to bring a lot of energy on that side of the court and just trying to bring some effort to our team,’’ she said. “Everybody played hard and was just trying to bring something to the table.’’

Guard Kelsey Mitchell wasn’t interested in talking about being voted most outstanding player in the tournament by the media.

“Well, I didn’t ever hear half of it because so much was going on – everybody was smiling, laughing and crying - and it was just too much,’’ she said. “But when I get a trophy individually, I guess it’s OK. But when you look at the trophy that you take home for your team and your program, that’s what matters.’’

Mitchell actually was having a sub-par game offensively shooting 4-for-16 until making three of her last four shots.

Ohio State had an 18-point lead whittled to 61-60 when Mitchell hit a long three-pointer from the side with 5:37 left.

“That’s where we want the ball,’’ McGuff said. “Whether we win or we lose, I can live with it with her shooting because I have that much confidence in her.’’

What got Mitchell fired up?

“I can’t actually tell you,’’ she said. “It was just so many emotions. Individually, I just tried to stay as aggressive as possible. But, like I said, buy into what Coach McGuff said in terms of the game plan that he had for us. I tried to stay within our offense.’’

Mitchell hit another three with 2:50 left that bumped the lead to 70-62.

Mavunga was another senior who came through in a big way. She followed up totaling 26 points, 21 rebounds and seven blocks against Minnesota with 15 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks against Maryland.

There was a lot of motivation with her growing up in nearby Brownsburg, Ind. She sat out the Big Ten tournament two years ago after transferring from North Carolina and last season because of a foot injury.

“It’s a true honor, a true blessing, to hear everybody saying my name in the stands and having so many family and friends in the stands,’’ she said. “I was just looking around and saw so many people that I knew who weren’t even on my (pass) list.’’

mznidar@dispatch.com

@markznidar

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