When the lights shine the brightest, Ohio State’s Kelsey Mitchell rarely disappoints. The super sophomore led the No. 3 seed Buckeyes to an 88-81 win over No. 6 seed West Virginia on Sunday with a game-high 45 points, to send OSU to its first Sweet 16 appearance since 2011.
Mitchell, who dropped in 20 before halftime was aggressive throughout the game, driving the lane and shooting 18-of-22 from the free throw line. She also converted on 5-of-12 from behind the arc, keeping the Mountaineer defense on their heels for the majority of the afternoon.
"She is obviously very difficult to guard," Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff said. "She handles the ball and has speed and quickness like nobody else in college basketball. West Virginia is a great team. They are a really good defensive team, but I think we were able to get in transition and play with enough spacing to give her (Mitchell) opportunities to drive the ball."
For Mitchell, it was her third 40 point performance in the last five games despite a stretch where she missed 12 straight shots from the field in the second half.
After the game, Mitchell addressed the media with both knees heavily iced and admitted that part of her late game struggles were due to fatigue.
"I missed like two or three layups that I think our team needed," Mitchell said. "It was fatigue settling in and I lost a little focus as far as keeping my eyes on the glass and finishing the easy baskets."
The Buckeyes, who gave up size to most of the Mountaineer roster made up for a 46-37 rebounding deficit by forcing 27 West Virginia turnovers and shooting 52.6 percent from the three point line. Ohio State scored 40 points off of WVU turnovers.
"With this game, I didn't think we could beat them in a half court game," McGuff said. "They are too big and physical around the basket. We were going to have to get the pace going really quickly and we were going to have to turn them over and turn those turnovers into points. We did that. 40-11 points off turnovers was obviously the key to the game."
After being tied at 39 at halftime, Ohio State opened the second half on an 11-2 run and turned defense into offense, forcing five turnovers in the first five minutes of the third quarter. The Buckeye lead would swell to as much as 12 with 1:23 remaining in the third.
West Virginia would not go away, closing the gap to just three with 25.4 seconds to play. However, a late turnover by the Mountaineers led to a breakaway lay-up for Mitchell, which effectively clinched the win for Ohio State.
After trailing 21-15 at the end of the first quarter, the Buckeyes opened up the second frame on a 17-3 run and with the crowd at St. John Arena rocking, appeared they would pull away as they did in an 88-69 victory over Buffalo two days earlier.
However, the Mountaineers responded by ending the quarter on a 15-7 run to tie the game at 39 heading into halftime. Despite stellar shooting from long range, the Buckeyes failed to pull away from West Virginia in large part due to the size and athleticism of the Mountaineers, which helped WVU outrebound Ohio State 24-10 in the first half.
After missing the first game of her college career against Buffalo, Ohio State senior guard Ameryst Alston returned to action for the first time since March 5. Coming off the bench for the first time this season, Alston scored six points in 21 minutes of action.
Alston, who sprained her right wrist in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament on March 4 said after not playing for more than two weeks, she felt better than she thought she would against West Virginia.
"I felt pretty good. It's still tender obviously. It got hit and I had to go out and couldn't go anymore," Alston said. "I am still playing cautious. There were times I could have drove to the basket, but I just didn't risk it. I actually surprised myself with my shot, I think my adrenaline was going."
Shayla Cooper, who got the start in place of Alston, finished with a double-double, scoring 15 points and leading the Buckeyes in rebounding with 10.
Four Mountaineers scored in double figures, led by Bria Holmes who poured in 21 for West Virginia, which lost its third game in as many seasons to Ohio State.
Next up for Ohio State is a trip to the Sweet 16, where it will play the winner of the No. 7 seed Tennessee and No. 2 seed Arizona State in Sioux Falls, S.D.
The trip to the Sweet 16 is the first for the current members of the Ohio State squad, and according to Cooper, the Buckeyes are back to playing the way they were when they rattled off 11 straight wins during the regular season.
"We just got our mojo back," Cooper said.