The Buckeyes are the No. 3 seed after going 21-9 in the regular season, including a 13-5 mark in conference play. The season was one of varying expectations for Ohio State, which spent the offseason looking to work in a highly regarded recruiting class and two transfers who were national top 50 recruits. Two of the signees and one of the transfers suffered season-ending knee injuries during preseason, however, and another player expected to be a major contributor (forward Kalpana Beach) was limited to seven games because of pain in a surgically repaired knee.
Despite having only seven or eight players available for most games, head coach Kevin McGuff coaxed a 20-win season out of the Buckeyes that included victories in 10 of their last 12 games.
Much of that success came as a result of the highest-scoring backcourt duo in the nation. Junior guard Ameryst Alston made the All-Big Ten first team for the second year in a row while finishing third in the Big Ten in scoring at 20.2 points per game. She did that despite having to play a new role this year to accommodate the arrival of Kelsey Mitchell, a five-star recruit from Cincinnati Princeton who wasted no time showing why most considered her the best prep point guard in the country last season.
Mitchell was a dominant force from game one of the season and finished the regular season with a national-high 736 points. She led the Big Ten in points per game (24.5) and became the second freshman to be named Big Ten Player of the Year.
Ohio State won its last four regular season games, and the strong finish to the season was also dependent on the continued development of freshman center Alexa Hart, who earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors after she led the conference in field goal percentage (61.3) and finished second in blocked shots (3.7 per game).
As for the Buckeyes' first tournament opponent, the sixth-seeded Gophers reached the quarterfinals by holding off a challenge from No. 14 seed Purdue on Thursday night.
Minnesota is led by Amanda Zahui B., 6-5 sophomore center from Stockholm, Sweden, who 18.5 points and a Big Ten-best 12.7 rebounds per game this season. She was named first-team All-Big Ten and shared Big Ten Player of the Year with Mitchell, who was bestowed that honor by the coaches while the media went with Zahui B.
Forward Shae Kelley, a senior transfer from Old Dominion, and freshman point guard Carlie Wagner give Minnesota two more double-figure scorers.
In their first year under head coach Marline Stollings, the Gophers went 22-8 despite losing two-time All-Big Ten guard Rachel Banham to a knee injury in December.
Stollings is the all-time leading scorer in Ohio high school basketball history with 3,514 points as a guard at Beaver Eastern. She began her college career at Ohio State before transferring to Ohio University, where she was an All-MAC and honorable mention All-America performer. One of her assistants is Niki Dawkins, the former Niki Lowry, a two-time Big Ten scoring champion as a Buckeye in the late 1980s and a member of the Ohio State Athletics Hall of Fame.
Minnesota advanced to the conference tournament quarterfinals by holding off injury-ravaged Purdue on Thursday night. Kelley scored 26 points while Zahui B. had 21 and guard Shayne Mullaney added 19 in the night cap of day two of the tournament at the Sears Centre Arena in Hoffman Estates, Ill.
After her team coughed up most of an 18-point first-half lead, Stollings said she would like to see a better defensive effort from her team against the Buckeyes.
"We play multiple defenses and I thought we lost some coverages there to start the second half, but it's a constant chess match, and they adjusted a little bit and we needed to adjust a little bit quicker to what they adjusted to," Stollings said. "But I think as you look at tomorrow our kids are excited about that game. We obviously beat Ohio State on their home court earlier in the year and a game in which Amanda was out in foul trouble quite a bit. So I think she in particular is looking forward to the game tomorrow night and hopefully staying on the court."
Zahui B. had 14 points and eight rebounds in Minnesota's 76-72 win Jan. 15 in Columbus but was limited to 23 minutes before fouling out. Hart was also limited by foul trouble and scored only eight points with seven rebounds, though she blocked five shots before fouling out as well.
Ohio State lost despite getting 36 points from Mitchell, who made a school-record nine three-pointers. With their star unable to get into the flow of the game, Kelley was a difference-maker for the Gophers, scoring 29 points and grabbing 18 rebounds. The latter was part of an overall 60-40 domination on the glass by Minnesota.
The Buckeyes will hope to recapture some the postseason magic they conjured last year when they were the No. 8 seed and beat No. 9 Northwestern before stunning No. 1 seed Penn State in the quarterfinals then suffering a narrow loss to fifth-seeded Iowa.