INDIANAPOLIS — Things started out hopeful for Ohio State, as if the Buckeyes might keep the magic going that they’d had for the first three games of the Big Ten women’s basketball tournament.
Then Maryland did what Maryland does, and Ohio State couldn’t hit shots, and by the time it was said and done, the No. 6 Terrapins were 82-65 winners and cutting down nets as champions.
But don’t let the outcome skew the bigger picture. The Buckeyes (21-12) made a statement in Indianapolis this week: We belong here, we’re getting better, and we’re not going anywhere.
Coming into the tournament, not many would have thought the Buckeyes would be playing for a title. Not with games against the likes of Minnesota, Iowa and Michigan, and certainly not after coming off consecutive losses.
A win over Minnesota is one thing. But to beat Iowa the next night — in dominating fashion — and to turn around and beat a Michigan team that was coming off an upset over Northwestern? That’s a tall task, and one the Buckeyes accomplished.
ESPN has Ohio State as a No. 6 seed in its latest mock bracket, solidly in the field. Remember, this is a team that didn’t make the field last season, and came into this season as one of the youngest teams in the country. Coaches didn’t have them as one of the top five teams in the conference heading into the season. Neither did the media. And while they ended up outside the top five (they entered the tournament as a No. 6 seed), they should leave Indianapolis with plenty of confidence.
“I don’t think many people thought we were going to get into the finals. We were the underdogs,” sophomore Dorka Juhasz said. “We left a mark here. It gives us extra fuel to work hard. We’re young, but we can do big things.”
Coming into the season, the coaches picked just one Ohio State player to make the All-Big Ten team, in Juhasz. By the end of the season, Juhasz was a first-team selection by both the coaches and media, while freshman Kierstan Bell earned honorable mention and All-Freshman honors from both selection groups.
And yet, after this tournament run, Juhasz and Bell weren’t the only players who stood out. Four players finished in double-figure scoring against Minnesota. Five scored in double figures against Iowa. Five reached the mark against Michigan. This is a team with plenty of balance and youth, which bodes well not just for its NCAA Tournament run but for the future as well. A team that starts three freshmen and a sophomore against the No. 6 team in the country is one that figures to only improve.
That improvement has short-term and long-term implications — yes, the future figures to be bright in the years to come. But when the Buckeyes go dancing in a few weeks, it seems unlikely that any team is going to be thrilled to be their partner.
Aaliyah Patty, another freshman, said the Buckeyes won’t forget this loss any time soon.
“We know how it feels now to make it so far and then let up,” she said. “We’re going to use that as fuel.”
Her assessment of the team’s performance might be a bit harsh — a team that playing its fourth game in four days looked like it. And even then, they held Maryland (28-4) below its offensive average and scored 65 points on a team that allows an average of 57. But it’s also a testament to where this team is right now: Ohio State expects to compete with the best, and it expects to win.
After the team’s win against Iowa, Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff said it was a culmination of a season’s work. That assessment still applies.
“We showed what we’re capable for the rest of this year, and certainly with such a young team, in the future,” he said Sunday night. “The kids had an edge to them. People probably weren’t talking about us having a chance to do anything in the tournament. I think they used that as motivation.”
The Buckeyes led 22-20 after the first quarter before the Terrapins began to clamp down on defense.
Maryland used a 9-2 run to help build a 44-35 halftime lead before pulling away in the third with a 12-4 spurt that made it 56-39.
Maryland went on to win its 17th consecutive game and claim its fourth title in the six years it’s been in the conference.