When the Ohio State women’s basketball entered the NCAA tournament, the Buckeyes were already limping into the postseason with multiple injuries. The laundry list of injuries got longer for the Scarlet and Gray as OSU announced senior captain Cait Craft is out for the remainder of the season as she broke a bone in her left hand on Thursday.
The injury was announced just more than 24 hours before the Buckeyes are set to tip against No. 7 seed Tennessee in the Sweet 16, leaving Ohio State’s bench almost fully depleted.
In the tournament opener against Buffalo, the Buckeyes played eight players as senior Ameryst Alston sat out with a sprained right wrist. Alston wasn’t needed as Ohio State blew the doors off of the Bulls 88-69, however she did come off the bench in an 88-81 thrilling win over West Virginia two days later.
In the win over the Mountaineers the Buckeyes rotated just seven players as Chelsea Mitchell and Kalpana Beach, who combined for just 10 points in 25 minutes of action against Buffalo, did not see the court in the second round.
Ohio State has been used to playing with a short bench ever since Coach Kevin McGuff arrived in Columbus, however that short bench has almost always involved Craft.
Craft has only missed one game all season, and in the last two tournament games has played 59 out of a possible 80 minutes.
As for how many people the Buckeyes will be able to play against Tennessee, McGuff said Thursday before Craft’s injury he wasn’t sure.
“We'll see,” he said. “That's something we're dealing with on a daily basis.”
Alston, who said her wrist was around 70 percent after the win over West Virginia will almost certainly slide back into a starting role. The fourth all-time leading scorer in Ohio State history was limited to 21 minutes off the bench against the Mountaineers.
“Am has continued to make progress. I thought her minutes against West Virginia were extremely valuable. She's felt better this week. I anticipate she'll feel even better tomorrow evening when we play than she did on Sunday,” McGuff said. “My expectation is she'll be able to play even more minutes and even be more effective.”
If Alston is anywhere close to 100 percent, she helps spread the floor for backcourt mate Kelsey Mitchell who scored 45 points against West Virginia in the second round, the fourth best scoring performance in NCAA tournament history.
However, if Alston’s wrist restricts her in any way, the Buckeyes struggle to spread the floor and score as defenders can focus their attention to Kelsey Mitchell.
Kelsey Mitchell said that even with all of the injuries Ohio State has suffered this season, she is focused on the Volunteers and not worrying about the lack of depth.
“You just try to focus on the team, making sure that, of course, everybody is okay. But as I say, make sure you focus on what the team needs,” she said. “Try to move on, turn the page, try to just play hard, go out as hard as you can regardless of the situation.”
As for their opponent, Tennessee is coming off of an upset of No. 2 seed Arizona State in Tempe in which 11 Volunteers saw action, seven of which played more than 11 minutes. To compare, Ohio State played just seven in its last game.
Throughout the course of the season, Kelsey Mitchell has played 1204 minutes, ranking her 18th in the country in most minutes played. Even after a game against West Virginia in which Kelsey Mitchell played 37 minutes and was repeatedly fouled, leading to 22 free throw attempts, McGuff said he isn’t too worried about his star guard becoming fatigued.
“She's very unique. She certainly has put a lot into physically being able to handle this pace, this type of pounding,” McGuff said. “I think, more importantly, she's a very mentally tough kid who can really push through when she's a little bit tired and still be effective, which is somewhat rare these days. I think that's what really makes her special.”
The matchup to watch will undoubtedly be between Kelsey Mitchell and Tennessee’s Diamond DeShields, who leads the Volunteers in scoring with 14.2 points per game. DeShields, a 6-foot-1 guard is also third on her team in rebounds, something that McGuff said will provide a challenge for the Buckeyes.
“They're long everywhere. They're big around the basket. On the perimeter they're extremely long. Diamond and Jaime (Nared), those kids are really long and athletic,” McGuff said. “That gives us problems on both ends of the floor. They could potentially shoot over us. Then also on the other end of the floor, if they can keep us in front, they can contest a lot of shots. They did a great job of that against Arizona State. Arizona State has a really good team. They really struggled to score over Tennessee. That's something that we're going to certainly have to be aware of.”
The Buckeyes and Volunteers are set to tip Friday at 9:30 p.m. in Sioux Falls, S.D.