If this game had been played in November or December or even a month ago, it might not have gone Ohio State’s way. Third game in three days, the opponents making a charge late in the game…
And yet, the Buckeyes prevailed for a 66-60 win over Michigan. Their reward? A date with Maryland for a Big Ten Tournament title on Sunday.
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"I think what we saw tonight was sort of the culmination of a lot of young players playing a lot of minutes throughout the year because they rarely looked like freshmen tonight," Buckeyes coach Kevin McGuff said. "In November and December and even January, we looked like freshmen because we are, but these young kids have played so many minutes in so many tough games that we've really grown up, and it's really great to see the maturity level and the ability to execute in a tight game like tonight."
Saturday night’s game was vastly different from Ohio State’s win over Iowa on Friday night, a game in which the Buckeyes cruised in dominating fashion. The Wolverines were pesky all night long, failing to allow much breathing room. Even when the Buckeyes extended their lead to 12 points midway through the third quarter, Michigan responded with a run to tie the game early in the fourth. Ohio State led by eight with three minutes to go, but the lead was just three 59 seconds later. But free throws sandwiched around a crucial steal and bucket by Jaci Sheldon sealed the win.
What’s the saying? Survive and advance? The Buckeyes did both. Only, it might be a slight to say this group is merely surviving. The team has won 10 of its 12 games this month, and ought to be turning heads.
"Being so young, just coming out and getting our names out there, I think everyone has projected us for the underdog," said Janai Crooms, who scored eight points Saturday night. "So I think we're proving something, and I'm really proud of us how we came out and started strong throughout this whole tournament."
As a reminder of just how young this team is: Madison Greene, who led the team with 13 points against the Wolverines, is a freshman. Sheldon, who scored 11 and made crucial plays down the stretch, is a freshman. Kierstan Bell, the team’s leading scorer, is a freshman. Crooms and Dorka Juhasz are just sophomores.
"Throughout the season we've grown and matured to who we are right now and I feel like it's showing," Greene said.
The Buckeyes offense wasn’t perfect against the Wolverines, as they struggled at times shooting, but they got plenty of balance. Five different players scored in double-figures, and Juhasz finished with a double-double. The team shot 12-of-15 at the free-throw line. And the defense stood up, scoring 15 points off 12 Michigan turnovers.
It all added up to a win, which is all that matters this time of year. Growing up doesn’t mean perfection. It means learning, progressing, and sometimes it means just finding a way to get it done. Safe to say Ohio State has done all three things during its Big Ten Tournament run thus far. And they’ll get one more shot to put an exclamation point on their trip to Indianapolis against the Terrapins. Maryland, ranked sixth in the country and the top seed in the tournament, has beaten Ohio State twice already this season. Will the third time be different?
Time will tell. But the Buckeyes have shown it would be foolish to assume anything.