Ohio State has been waiting for a game like this. And it came at just the right time.
The Buckeyes’ 87-66 win over Iowa in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals was more dominant than the final score indicates -- and a 21-point win looks pretty dominant.
"You know, we've been kind of building towards this, if you kind of look at our body of work," Buckeyes coach Kevin McGuff said. "We have a really young team with no seniors and just one junior, and the goal for us was to continue to get better throughout the year, and if you look where we started and where we are now, we've made significant progress, and that's always the goal.
Mission accomplished, at least on this night. How do you know things are going well? When you can have a debate about which aspect of Ohio State’s performance was more impressive: The offense or the defense?
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A case could be made for both. The 87 points scored is the team’s most since a 99-76 thrashing of Minnesota in mid-February, and the second-most points the team has scored in Big Ten play. The 66 points allowed stands in stark comparison to the 79.9 points the Hawkeyes averaged coming into Friday’s game, which was the second-most in the conference.
A 19-0 run in the first quarter embodied both aspects of Ohio State’s game at its best -- both in this game, and more importantly, for the rest of a season in which only do-or-die games remain.
The run, in brief: A Kierstan Bell layup, a Dorka Juhasz layup, a Bell 3-pointer, a Madison Greene 3-pointer, another 3 from Bell, two Braxtin Miller free throws, a Janai Crooms layup and a layup from Juhasz.
By the time the offensive explosion was done, Ohio State had a 22-3 lead. And in the span of 4:14, the game was more or less over.
Another crucial aspect of Ohio State’s early run was ball movement. The Buckeyes made 10 field goals in the first 10 minutes of the game and had nine assists. By the end of the game, they had 19 assists on 30 buckets.
As has been the case all season when the Buckeyes are at their best, balance was present throughout. Bell finished with 16 points, Juhasz and Miller had 15 each, Macy Sheldon had 14 and Greene has 12. The team shot 50% from the floor, and that included a fourth quarter in which it hit 3-of-15 field goals. For the first three quarters, the Buckeyes shot 60%.
But the offense wouldn’t have been possible without defense. And that’s going to make the biggest difference moving forward.
"I think that sometimes offense can go up and down, and you can hit shots and then go into spurts where the team is not really hitting shots," Miller said. "So I think it's super important for us to be able to have great defense and get stops, which then can turn into easy baskets in transition, where we really excel."
By the time the game was done, 14 Iowa turnovers turned into 16 Ohio State points. In a January meeting between the two teams, Iowa scored 77 points in a nine-point win. What changed to make the Hawkeyes manage just 34% shooting?
Some of it can be attributed to Iowa simply not hitting shots. Hawkeyes coach Lisa Bluder called the poor shooting performance "an anomaly." But give Ohio State credit, too.
"I thought we guarded the ball a lot better," Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff said. "They really beat us off the dribble in the first go-around, and then also they got us around the basket -- two things: Guarding the ball and our post defense were both significantly better than the first time we played them in Iowa City."
Make no mistake, there’s more work to be done -- and soon. Ohio State faces a Michigan team in the tournament semifinals on Saturday that has won five of six and is coming off wins against Nebraska and Northwestern. Ohio State came away with a win against the Wolverines in January thanks to a late offensive surge.
But for at least one night, the Buckeyes can relish in a performance that shows what they be at their best.
"We've been kind of building towards is to make sure we're playing our best basketball at this time of year," McGuff said. "With so many new people and we were so young, it's been a real process, and that's probably what I'm most proud of is our kids have really committed to making sure we improved as a team throughout the year."
Ohio State 87, Iowa 66
OSU: Juhasz 6-11 2-4 15, Patty 1-3 2-2 4, Greene 4-4 1-1 12, Sheldon 5-7 2-3 14, Miller 4-11 7-7 15, Bell 6-14 0-0 15, Crooms 4-6 0-0 9, Wone Aranaz 0-4 2-2 2. Totals 30-60 16-19 87.
IOWA: Warnock 1-9 2-2 4, Czinano 4-14 3-5 11, Ma.Meyer 4-10 3-3 13, Sevillan 4-5 1-2 13, Doyle 6-18 3-4 16, Marshall 0-1 0-0 0, Ollinger 1-1 1-2 3, Sanders 0, Martin 1-3 0-0 3, Taiwa 0-1 0-0 0, Me.Meyer 1-1 0-2 3, Cook 0. Totals 22-63 13-20 66.
Ohio State 29 19 25 14—87
Iowa 14 17 13 22—66
Three-point goals: Ohio State 11-27 (Bell 4-10, Greene 3-3, Sheldon 2-4, Crooms 1-2, Juhasz 1-2, Miller 0-3, Wone Aranaz 0-2, Patty 0-1), Iowa 9-25 (Sevillan 4-5, Ma.Meyer 2-6, Doyle 1-5, Martin 1-1, Me.Meyer 1-1, Warnock 0-5, Marshall 0-1, Taiwo 0-1). Rebounds: Ohio State 43 (Juhasz 14), Iowa 27 (Ma.Meyer 7). Assists: Ohio State 19 (Crooms 6), Iowa 15 (Doyle 4). Turnovers: Ohio State 18, Iowa 14. A: 4,798.