INDIANAPOLIS — In October, when the Ohio State women’s basketball season was in its infancy, coach Kevin McGuff had no real idea what his team’s identity would be.
After a difficult start to the season, the Buckeyes by February had forged a winning personality built on grit and guile, toughness and will.
By March, however, their pluck had run out.
Ohio State lost its opening game of the Big Ten tournament for only the second time in 25 years, dropping a 73-63 decision to Wisconsin on Thursday in a second-round game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Kelly Karlis and Marsha Howard combined to score 47 points for Wisconsin (15-17), which a day before had become the first 13th seed to win a Big Ten tournament game, then followed with an upset of the fifth-seeded Buckeyes (14-14), a six-time tournament champion.
“We had talked before the game about we had to be the hardest-playing team, and we were for the first half,” McGuff said. “They played harder than we did in the second half, we quit defending and that’s what happens.”
Carmen Grande scored 12 points and had eight assists to lead five players in double figures for Ohio State, which never trailed in the first half, building a 32-19 lead with 47 seconds left in the half on a three-pointer by Janai Crooms.
“We had toughness, going for every ball,” OSU freshman Dorka Juhasz said of the first half. “I don’t know what happened at halftime.”
Nothing good for the Buckeyes, who connected on only one of their first 14 shots from the field in the second half as Wisconsin closed the gap to 35-32 midway through the third quarter.
Then the Badgers started raining in three-pointers, making three in the final four minutes of the third quarter and three more in the first 1:47 of the fourth, taking the lead for good at 53-51 on Imani Lewis’ three-pointer with 7:40 remaining.
“They shot it a little better than they normally do, but we didn’t adjust to get closer and contest those shots,” McGuff said. “We really got away from our identity, which is defend and rebound.”
A three-pointer by Karlis, who had 24 points, pushed Wisconsin’s lead to 58-51, and Niya Beverley added another at the 4:40 mark to make it 61-53. OSU never was within seven points again.
At that point, the Badgers were 7 of 8 from three-point range in the second half. They finished 11 of 17 (64.7 percent) and along the way became the first team this season to score 50 points in a half against the Buckeyes.
“It’s hard to say, but they were tougher,” said Juhasz, who finished with 10 points and 16 rebounds.
The loss was the second straight painful defeat for the Buckeyes, who let a 16-point first-half lead slip away against Rutgers on Sunday. Even so, OSU likely will receive a bid in the Women’s NIT.
“It’s tough. We’ve had success in this tournament but we didn’t today,” McGuff said. “We didn’t play hard enough in the second half and you don’t get a chance to do it over.”