In Sweet 16 matchup, Texas' press defense looms as test for Ohio State women's basketball

Joey Kaufman
The Columbus Dispatch
Mar 13, 2022; Kansas City, MO, USA; Baylor Lady Bears guard Jordan Lewis (3) handles the ball against Texas Longhorns guard Joanne Allen-Taylor (11) in the first half at Municipal Auditorium. Mandatory Credit: Amy Kontras-USA TODAY Sports

SPOKANE, Wash. — The Ohio State women’s basketball team’s hopes of reaching the Elite Eight for the first time in nearly three decades could rest on one key matchup on Friday.  

Can it handle defensive pressure?

When the sixth-seeded Buckeyes face second-seeded Texas in an NCAA Tournament Spokane regional semifinal, they’ll meet a team that presses often.

That was the difference in the opening weekend of the tournament for the Longhorns, who forced a combined 41 turnovers and 20 steals in wins over Fairfield and Utah.

The full-court press is a tenet of teams led by Vic Schaefer, who was the coach at Mississippi State for nearly a decade before arriving at Texas in 2020.

Ohio State basketball:Can Buckeyes clear Sweet 16 hurdle against Texas?

“Our press is who we are,” Schaefer said. “It's just what we do.”

Pointing to their proneness for ball pressure and disruption of passing lanes, Buckeyes coach Kevin McGuff referred to the Longhorns as one of the best defensive teams in the nation.

Only five of the 16 teams remaining in the tournament allow fewer points per game.

But Texas’ defense is also important because the pressure it cranks up leads to so many of its scoring opportunities, bringing points in transition.

Mar 13, 2022; Kansas City, MO, USA; Baylor Lady Bears guard Jordan Lewis (3) and Texas Longhorns guard Aliyah Matharu (2) fight for a loose ball in the second half at Municipal Auditorium. Mandatory Credit: Amy Kontras-USA TODAY Sports

“They’re as good as anyone in the country at taking live ball turnovers and turning them into layups,” McGuff said.

Ohio State has a collection of guards capable of handling the Longhorns’ dogged defense.  

Led by Jacy Sheldon and Taylor Mikesell, the Buckeyes rank 15th across all of Division I with a 1.22 assist-to-turnover ratio, though they had 16 assistants with 20 turnovers when they beat Louisiana State on Monday to advance to the Sweet 16.

Their presence didn’t leave McGuff to dwell any less on the importance of ball security in the upcoming matchup.

“We're going to have to take care of the ball, not turn the ball over,” McGuff said. “That will be a stat to look at at the end of the game.”

Texas defense: 'wear you down in the fourth quarter'

Part of the challenge presented by Texas’ press is that it becomes tiresome for teams to navigate over an entire contest.

Ohio State Buckeyes guard Jacy Sheldon (4) is guarded by Penn State Nittany Lions guard Makenna Marisa (20) during Thursday's NCAA Division I women's basketball game on February 24, 2022, at Value City Arena in Columbus, Oh.

Schaefer pointed out that a majority of the turnovers his team forced in its 78-56 win over Utah in the Round of 32 occurred in the second half. Only seven were in the first two quarters.

“Our deal is we're going to wear you down in the fourth quarter,” Schaefer said. “You might be giving it to us at that point because you're just tired of messing with us.”

It’s also a unique look presented to opponents.

“I think our press is not something that a lot of teams see,” senior forward Audrey Warren said. “We use that to our advantage.

The emphasis is born out of a belief by Schaefer that a pressure defense is an effective way to build a successful program and brings excitement for both players and fans as a result.

“That's what makes women’s basketball fun to watch,” he said.

Warren said the Longhorns work on their press in each of their practices throughout the season.

“Every time we scrimmage,” Warren said, “it's, ‘get into the press, get into the press.’ It's ingrained in our mind, definitely.”

Buckeyes to match Texas’ energy on defense

Though it’s poised to test Ohio State’s ball handlers, redshirt sophomore guard Rikki Harris thought it would also make it as important for the Buckeyes to match Texas’ energy on defense.

Ohio State Buckeyes guard Taylor Mikesell (24) drives past Michigan State Spartans guard Nia Clouden (24) during the third quarter of the NCAA women's basketball game at Value City Arena in Columbus on Jan. 12, 2022.

“Offense will come for both teams,” Harris said. “We'll score. It’s going to be who is willing to make that extra play on defense, go after that loose ball, dive on the ground. I know we're ready to do that all game. So whoever can last the longest.”

Joey Kaufman covers Ohio State football for The Columbus Dispatch. Contact him at jkaufman@dispatch.com or on Twitter @joeyrkaufman.