For the first time since 2011, the Ohio State women’s basketball team will host the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, it could be without one of its star players.
Ameryst Alston, the fourth all-time leading scorer in Ohio State history sprained her right wrist diving for a loose ball in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals on March 4. While Alston did start the semi-final game against Michigan State the next day, she was limited to just 10 minutes of action as the Buckeyes (24-7, 15-3) were throttled, 82-63.
When the No. 3 seed Buckeyes tip off in their first round game of the NCAA Tournament against No. 14 seed Buffalo, it could very well be without the services of Alston who has never missed a game in her college career. That said, head coach Kevin McGuff said he is “cautiously optimistic” his senior captain will be able to go against the Bulls.
“She has done a really good job of working with our trainer to make progress,” McGuff said. “We haven’t had her in exactly everything we have been doing in practice with the team, but we are doing a lot of stuff off to the side. Conditioning, handling the ball and making plays with the ball. We will see how the next day goes, but she is in a really good place right now.”
If Alston can’t go, the Buckeyes will be faced with the task of trying to win a game with an even shorter bench. Ohio State has seen forward Kaylan Pugh transfer, forward Kalpana Beach suffer yet another knee injury, guard Kianna Holland sidelined with knee soreness and Theresa Ekhelar benched to focus on academics, all this season.
With the bench almost cut in half, Ohio State guard and fellow senior captain Cait Craft said having Alston would be a lift the Buckeyes could use in their second NCAA Tournament under McGuff.
“It will mean a lot. Obviously that last game showed how much she means to our team from a leadership standpoint and on the floor,” Craft said. “To have her back out there tomorrow, it would be a big deal.”
Alston, who is averaging 18.6 points per game this season, said her wrist feels a lot better than it did when she hurt it in Indianapolis.
“I have made a lot of progress,” Alston said. “I have been doing some things and it’s looking good.”
Regardless if Alston can go out not, the Buckeyes will have to take on a Bulls team making its first ever NCAA Tournament appearance after winning the MAC conference tournament as the No. 8 seed.
Buffalo (20-13, 8-10) rattled off four wins in four days to get to the NCAA Tournament, including a buzzer beater finish in the title game as guard Stephanie Reid hit a floater in the lane as time expired to send the Bulls dancing.
While Buffalo struggled most of the year to score, averaging just 61 points per game, the Bulls were able to win games by playing tough defense, allowing opponents to score just 59.9 points per game, good for second in the MAC.
McGuff, who took Xavier to the NCAA Tournament five straight seasons (2006-2011) in his time with the Musketeers said he expects the Bulls to play the Buckeyes tough in the first round.
“Buffalo has played great, especially down the stretch. They play really hard, they shoot the ball really well from the perimeter,” he said. “They can play a lot of zone and confuse people. They have won a lot of close games which is important in March to have the ability to do that.”
The Bulls head coach, Felisha Legette-Jack is no stranger to Big Ten basketball as she was the head coach at Indiana from 2006-12, but has never made an appearance in the NCAA Tournament before as a head coach. She took the Hoosiers to the WNIT Quarterfinals in 2009 in her further postseason appearance.
Even though the Bulls have played some of the best defense in the MAC this season, Buffalo has not had to face Kelsey Mitchell. Mitchell is averaging 25.7 points per game, good for fourth in the country.
The reigning freshman of the year is coming off a Big Ten tournament in which she scored 63 points in two games, including a 43 point performance against Rutgers that marked a tournament record.
The winner of the Buckeyes and Bulls game will play the winner of the West Virginia, Princeton matchup which is set to precede the Ohio State game on Friday afternoon at St. John Arena.
The Mountaineers are set to tip with the Tigers at noon on Friday, with the Buckeyes and Bulls set to tip at 2:30.