LEXINGTON, Ky. - Since arriving at Ohio State, Kevin McGuff's Buckeyes have advanced further in the postseason each year. This season, he has arguably his most complete team.
The Buckeyes have depth, limited injuries and one of the countries best players in junior Kelsey Mitchell. Despite all that however, Ohio State is opening the NCAA tournament on the road as a No. 5 seed after a disappointing 71-60 loss to Purdue in the Big Ten tournament semi-final.
Since the loss to the Boilermakers, Mitchell said the Buckeyes have been focused on turning the page and focusing on themselves over the last two weeks in practice.
“It was a tough one for our team. It was one of those games where things didn’t fall for us that day. We wished they did but we’re now back to the drawing board," Mitchell said. "I think Coach McGuff put a big emphasis on turning the page, dusting ourselves off and getting back to what we are. I don’t think our team lost that (focus), but it was just one of those nights against Purdue."
Ohio State senior Shayla Cooper said she took it upon herself to lift the spirits of the Buckeyes following the loss to Purdue and to encourage them to leave it behind them.
“I was very vocal and I sent the team messages to let them know how important they are to this team and let them know that the loss didn’t define us at all," Cooper said. We can grow from that as a team and turn the page and get to it.”
With the season on the line, the Buckeyes are set to take on No. 12 seed Western Kentucky in the first round of the tournament. The Lady Toppers are currently riding a 12-game winning streak that dates back to Feb. 2 as they captured both the regular season and Conference USA tournament titles.
After getting a chance to watch film on WKU, McGuff said he expects the Lady Toppers to take a good amount of long range shots.
"They play at a fast pace and can really score the ball. They shoot the 3 extremely well, especially if you give them open shots. They're very dangerous. They're used to winning," McGuff said. "They have an expectation that they're going to win. I know they're going to be extremely prepared and play hard. We're going to have a difficult challenge on our hands tomorrow."
The Lady Toppers convert from three-point land at a 33 percent clip while Ohio State shoots slightly better from long range at 35 percent on the year. The Buckeyes have been dependent on the three-point shot perhaps too much at times this season, especially Mitchell. The Big Ten Player of the Year converted on 1 of 12 shots from distance in the loss to Purdue.
McGuff said Thursday that if Mitchell does a better job of getting her teammates involved early in the contest against WKU, then the Buckeyes should be successful.
"One of the things that she's done a great job of this year, especially in the latter half of the year, is making people around her better," McGuff said. "Her assists are up, overall efficiency is up. If she continues to do the things that she's doing, I think she'll be fine."
A former Kentucky Wildcat turned Buckeye, Linnae Harper said she believes Ohio State has improved its effort in practice and added she thinks it will carry over into the first round of the tournament.
“I think we have gotten better with consistent effort just everyday," Harper said." We had a few days to rest and get our minds back right and for the past week and a half, we have been practicing really well. Attention to detail, a lot of effort and energy. I think that was good for us.”
Harper played two years in Lexington, Ky. before transferring to Ohio State following her sophomore year at Kentucky. Now a Buckeye and the Big Ten's 6th Player of the Year, Harper said while it has been weird to be back on UK's campus, she is focused on her current team and advancing to the next round.
“It’s a little weird just driving through Lexington thinking, man I used to be here for two years," she said. "I think it is a great opportunity for our team to get ready for the tournament. I am excited and I am sure my teammates are excited so it is a great feeling.”
WKU currently has two players on its roster that Harper played with at Kentucky. Forward Kyvin Goodin-Rogers and guard Jaycee Coe both wore the blue and white with Harper at UK and there is a good chance Coe and Harper could be guarding each other on multiple occasions when the two teams tip off. Both play significant minutes for their respective teams off the bench as Harper averages 8.5 points per game while Coe averages 5.2.
McGuff said that post player Stephanie Mavunga could be available for Ohio State's tilt with the Lady Toppers, but said she is still likely to be a game time decision for the Buckeyes.
Mavunga has not played since Feb. 4, but was averaging a double-double in 21 games played this season.
"She's had a great week. She's out of her boot. She's running. She's doing all of the things that you would need to do to be on the court," McGuff said of Mavunga's progress. "We won't make a final determination until tomorrow. We'll see. It could go either way at this point."
Mavunga did not participate in the first 15 minutes of Ohio State's practice that was open to the media on Thursday afternoon.
Last Chance For Cooper
Ohio State's lone senior, Cooper told her team before an 88-81 win over Iowa on Feb. 12 that it would take 13 straight wins to win a national title. While the Buckeyes had that streak snapped, a six game winning streak would still do the job.
Since Mavunga's injury, Cooper has averaged 14.8 points and 8.6 boards per game since and said that her experience combined with Mitchell's makes her confident the Buckeyes will be able to make a run during the NCAA tournament.
“As a senior, and Kelsey as a junior, we can bring a leadership role, to help the young ones out," Cooper said. "We have a pretty young team, so for us to have been here before, I think our leadership will definitely show.”
Survive And Advance
Should the Buckeyes defeat Western Kentucky, Ohio State would take on the winner of the No. 4 seed Kentucky vs. No. 13 Belmont on Sunday.
McGuff said he has already had his assistants prepare scouting reports for both teams, as is customary with most college programs in a tournament setting.
"I sign an assistant to it, who has already been watching film on the two opponents," McGuff said. "They have everything ready. So if we are fortunate enough to advance, they will both have a scouting report for each team. We will meet, we will talk about it and we will apply it to practice."
Ohio State is set to take on the Lady Toppers at 2:30 p.m. in Lexington. The game is set to be televised on ESPN2.
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