Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff proud of Buckeyes' fight despite late-season slide

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State guard Braxtin Miller (10), who scored a team-high 19 points in Friday's season-ending loss at Rutgers, is already looking forward to next season.

Speaking to his players in the visiting locker room at the Rutgers Athletic Center late Friday night, Ohio State women’s basketball coach Kevin McGuff offered an encouraging parting message.

Although the 22nd-ranked Buckeyes suffered a 71-63 loss to Rutgers, their fourth straight defeat to finish the season, they navigated some difficult circumstances between a coronavirus pandemic that shut down the program for almost a month in December and a self-imposed postseason ban that kept them from reaching the NCAA or Big Ten tournaments.

McGuff felt their resolve in handling those difficulties was more reflective of their season than a late slide.

“I'm very proud of the team for fighting through,” McGuff said. “There's a lot of times throughout the year they could have mailed it in, but they didn't. They kept fighting and kept playing hard.”

In their finale, the Buckeyes (13-7, 9-7 Big Ten) were without starting point guard Madison Greene for the fifth consecutive game, a stretch coinciding with their four-game losing streak.

McGuff said she had been close to a return against the 24th-ranked Scarlet Knights, but he and his staff opted not to remove her from the unavailability list.

The team has not disclosed the reason for her absence, but she has not played since a presumptive positive coronavirus test led to the cancellation of a Feb. 14 game against Northwestern.

Without her in the lineup, the Buckeyes equaled their season-low points total and shot only 31.7%. Rutgers (14-3, 10-3) led 21-9 after the first quarter and never trailed after the first 90 seconds.

Ohio State won only once without Greene — 100-85 over Purdue on Feb. 18.

Before the losing streak sent them toward the middle of the pack in the Big Ten, the Buckeyes had been in contention for the conference’s regular-season title, remaining a game or two out of first place in the standings as late as mid-February.

The push had been bolstered by three consecutive wins over top-20 teams in Michigan, Maryland and Indiana in late January.

Had the Buckeyes been eligible to reach the NCAA tournament, the series of quality wins would have likely led them to at least receive an at-large berth.

Despite an abrupt end to the season, senior guard Braxtin Miller said there was only so much disappointment. Players long knew their fate. The postseason ban was imposed three months ago.

“We've kind of been preparing for it since we've known this was going to happen for so long,” Miller said.

One of the team’s top scorers and among five who averaged in double figures, Miller plans to return next season, taking advantage of the additional year of eligibility awarded by the NCAA due to the coronavirus pandemic.

McGuff expects to have a “strong core” of players back, a group that also includes fellow guard and leading scorer Jacy Sheldon, as well as forward Dorka Juhasz.

If the roster remains largely intact, the Buckeyes could not only return to the NCAA Tournament, but challenge for a high seed. Their postseason ban lasts only one season.

“We have an incredibly high ceiling, and I think we showed that this year,” said McGuff, whose team was ranked as high as No. 11 in January.

“We just kind of got to assess what we need to do to be more consistently that team. And we'll spend some time doing that and making sure, from an X's and O's standpoint, we're doing the right things schematically that best utilize our talent on both ends of the floor. And then also some other things just to make sure that the chemistry remains strong.”

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman