Kierstan Bell was shooting around in the practice gym with friends Sunday before she went back to the locker room and found herself crying.

Once there, she heard the news that Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others had died in a helicopter crash in California.

"I just keep seeing Kobe, Kobe. I'm like, 'Why does everybody keep saying Kobe?' ” Bell said. “I just started crying, like, 'This is so crazy.' "

Bell, a freshman guard for Ohio State, chose to wear No. 24 instead of Lebron James' No. 23 because she had always gravitated to Bryant — despite being from northeast Ohio, like James was — as well as the memories of watching Bryant's games with her stepdad.

Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff said everyone on the team, and just about everyone he knew in the basketball world, was affected by the news. They took some time to talk about it, but now the Buckeyes (11-8, 4-4) turn their attention to a rematch Thursday night against No. 17 Maryland (16-4, 7-2) at Value City Arena.

The Buckeyes try not to even think about their standing on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament with 10 games remaining until the Big Ten tournament — they're projected as one of the last four in by ESPN — but it's not missed on anybody that these types of opportunities can make or break a team's postseason hopes.

"Everyone's pushing, trying to play their best basketball toward March, so this is a really important stretch for us,” McGuff said. “Hopefully, we got a little better in this time off.”

The Buckeyes last played last Thursday in a loss at No. 18 Iowa after leading at halftime. Finishing off games has been a challenge for Ohio State, including its earlier game against Maryland when the Buckeyes led at halftime but lost by 10 after turning the ball over 25 times.

Consistency in every facet has been the Buckeyes' focus. They haven't lost back-to-back games since November, but they've won back-to-back games just once since early December, as well.

"Our momentum and our energy is just so good in the first half, and then when that second half comes around it's like, 'Who is that?' ” guard Janai Crooms said. “I feel like (consistency is) going to play a very big role toward the end of the season 'cause these tough games are going to come up and we just got to stick together.”

Bell has been one of the more inconsistent players but always plays a vital role in determining the game's outcome. She said she'll have Bryant on her mind moving forward, thinking about the unselfishness he showed in 2013 when he made two free throws after suffering a season-ending Achilles tendon injury.

“We tend to try to do our own little thing to try to help the team,” Bell said, “but if we just stick together and go out there and play together, then we'll be pretty good.”

jmyers@dispatch.com

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