Nikki Keyton is not sure exactly when, but sometime before the 1992-93 Ohio State women’s basketball season, she delivered a pep talk to freshman Katie Smith on one of the ramps leading to the floor at St. John Arena.

The Logan native was mature for a freshman, Keyton remembered, but also came to campus with high expectations as one of the top high school players in the country.

“I remember having this conversation about her just being her,” said Keyton, who then was entering her senior season. “Like, ‘You’re enough. Just be you. It’s gonna be fine and we’ve got you.’ ”

Their interaction was a microcosm of what made the 1992-93 team capable of making, 25 years ago, what remains the only Final Four and NCAA title game appearance in program history: a hungry group of senior leaders in Keyton, Averrill Roberts, Audrey Burcy and Lisa Sebastian, role players and a talented group of freshmen led by Smith that was given the freedom to express those talents.

Under eighth-year coach Nancy Darsch, players pushed each other, making for competitive practices and a few intense pickup games at Larkins Hall before school started.

“It was a little bit of, ‘Who are these young bucks?’ and hard fouls. But it was fun because we competed,” said Smith, now the head coach of the WNBA’s New York Liberty. “We went after each other, which was probably part of the reason we ended up being good.”

Coaching an extremely competitive group was not always easy, said Darsch, who coached OSU from 1985 to 1997, but the team found a tone and a mindset that proved successful.

“Ultimately, the seniors took on the responsibility of integrating Katie into what we did as a team, and Katie also had a strong will to succeed and took that responsibility seriously,” Darsch said. “I simply tried to be a sounding board for Katie to allow her to be herself, to manage expectations and to excel.”

Practices matched the Buckeyes’ playing style: defense-first, tough rebounding and gritty man-to-man defense, principles Darsch sharpened over a seven-year stint as an assistant to Pat Summitt at Tennessee.

“I always said, ‘We fouled better than anybody in the country,’ and they were relentless on defense,” said Melissa McFerrin, an OSU assistant in 1993 and now the head coach at Memphis. “There was at times conflict in the gym, but it was a good conflict. It was a competitive conflict and they just grew together.”

The Buckeyes realized as the season progressed just how good they were. They knocked off No. 20 Georgia and No. 5 Virginia — a Final Four team in 1992 — before the new year and lost by just three points to top-ranked Vanderbilt. Ohio State’s only other regular-season losses came at No. 6 Penn State and at No. 3 Iowa, both of which they avenged at home.

A 24-3 regular-season record earned the Buckeyes a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. After a first-round bye, Ohio State easily defeated Rutgers 91-60 in the second round and Western Kentucky by 13 in the Sweet 16.

The Buckeyes squeaked past Virginia’s Burge twins, 75-73, in a regional final in Richmond, Virginia, to reach a Final Four matchup with Iowa in Atlanta that had the feel of a large-scale Big Ten rivalry game.

Then-Iowa coach C. Vivian Stringer wasn’t thrilled that Ohio State’s regular public-address announcer, Wendy Craver, had been tapped for PA duties at the Final Four. The Buckeyes chuckled at the fact that their locker room at The Omni in Atlanta was the same color — pink — as the one they were given for road games at Iowa.

Against the Hawkeyes, Smith scored with 11 seconds left in regulation to send the game to overtime, where the Buckeyes, who forced 25 turnovers in the game, closed out a 73-72 win. In those days, the national final was held the day after the semifinals, meaning the Buckeyes quickly went to work planning a 2-3 trapping defense for Texas Tech.

One problem: Red Raiders senior Sheryl Swoopes.

The Buckeyes’ plan was to trap her every time she touched the ball. It worked to some degree in the second half, but Swoopes still got her shots, going 16 for 24 from the field for a Final Four-record 47 points in Tech’s 84-82 win.

“I didn’t know her before that game,” Stacie Howard, an Ohio State junior post player in 1993, said of Swoopes. “Her name is stuck in my brain now.”

A heartbreaking loss came with some optimism. The Buckeyes lost three senior starters but still returned Smith, Howard and several contributing members from the 1992-93 team.

OSU discovered, however, the same lesson learned by many good teams: It’s harder to win and even harder to repeat it. Smith’s class won just one more tournament game, as seniors. They failed to make the tournament as sophomores and juniors.

“I think it gives you an appreciation of just how hard it is to win and to be there at the end,” Smith said. “We never got it rolling, but it just kind of taught you that these things are precious and you take advantage of it when you get the opportunity.”

The lesson is one Adrienne Johnson, then an Ohio State freshman and now executive director for player relations for the Louisville women’s basketball team, tells Cardinals players (who, by the way, are headed to the Final Four in Columbus this weekend).

“The thing that we communicate here at Louisville is, ‘You guys, it’s difficult. It is difficult to get to that level,' ” Johnson said. “I think (the 1993 Final Four) means more now than it did then.”

aerickson@dispatch.com

@AEricksonCD

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