The NCAA women’s basketball tournament was not as crazy as the men’s tournament until Monday night, when it became unhinged in venerable St. John Arena. The place has seen so much over its six decades. Now, it has this:
No. 11 seed Central Michigan rolled to a stunning 95-78 victory over No. 3 Ohio State in front of a crowd that included 500 of the loudest visiting fans in the country. From the end of the first quarter until the final buzzer, there was never a doubt about the outcome. And the Chippewas rooters filled the old barn with glorious noise.
It was a wicked knockout punch to the Buckeyes’ talented senior class. Kelsey Mitchell, Stephanie Mavunga, Linnae Harper, Alexa Hart and Asia Doss — winners of 106 games — will not have a chance to move on to the Sweet 16 in Spokane, Washington, where Oregon and maybe Notre Dame would be waiting for them. They will not have a chance to fulfill a dream and play in the Final Four — which will be staged down the street at Nationwide Arena two weeks hence.
“In the back of everybody’s mind, if you’re a part of our program, is seize that moment,” Mitchell said. “We wanted to be back here for the Final Four. I don’t think you’re a competitor if you’re not at least thinking about it in the back of your mind.”
Instead, this special group of young women is now one half of a MAC massacre that shook up the women’s field. Buffalo, the MAC runner-up, hammered Florida State 86-65 in Tallahassee earlier Monday. Central Michigan, the MAC champion, ran the Buckeyes out of Columbus. These two major upsets were the women’s equivalent of the earthquakes that have wrecked the men’s brackets this year.
Who saw this coming? Some other nun from Loyola-Chicago? These Buckeyes had won 12 of their previous 13 games. They were out of sorts earlier in the season, but of late, they were becoming a closely knit team. They were sharing the ball, defending like demons. They looked like they were on a mission.
It all unraveled in 40 minutes.
Ohio State had 15-5 lead in the first quarter. They led 15-9 at the end of 10 minutes. The Buckeyes looked too big, athletic and deep for the Chippewas, who get almost nothing off their bench.
“We withstood the punch,” Central Michigan coach Sue Guevara said. “I think you saw that there was no panic. … This team will not fall.”
The Chippewas dominated the final three quarters. They shot 52 percent from behind the three-point arc, made 25 of 27 free throws and outrebounded the Buckeyes 46-35.
The Chippewas were fearless. They won the program’s first NCAA Tournament game when they handily defeated LSU on Saturday. Two days later, they won again on Ohio State’s court, in front of a healthy throng of Buckeyes fans, with Brutus bopping around all over the place.
We can parse the X’s and O’s, but the difference was that the Chippewas took advantage of every mistake their opponents made — be it a missed shot, a turnover or a blown coverage — and exacted a price. They were stone-cold killers.
Mitchell had 28 points in her final college game. With that, she moved past former Southwest Missouri State star Jackie Stiles and into second place on the NCAA’s all-time women’s scoring list. Mitchell finished with 3,402 points. Washington’s Kelsey Plum (3,527) is the only woman who has scored more. LSU’s Pete Maravich (3,667) is the only man who has scored more.
For the moment, that fact means absolutely nothing to her.
“We lost,” Mitchell said. “That’s all I can say.”
What was inconceivable to her was conceivable to the Chippewas, who shook up the Midwest.