The Ohio State women’s basketball program hasn’t been able to take the step from good to great since its lone Final Four appearance in 1993.
For the second straight year, the Buckeyes will have their chance to take the next step toward great in the Sweet 16 against No. 1 seed Notre Dame on March 24 in Lexington, Ky.
The No. 5 seed Buckeyes have reached the Sweet 16 two years in a row but have not reached the Elite Eight since their run to the title game in 1993. A year ago, Ohio State was a No. 3 seed but was blasted by seventh-seeded Tennessee in the Sweet 16, 78-62.
So why should this year be any different, especially since Ohio State is going up against a No. 1 seed? For one thing, the Buckeyes have depth. Against the Volunteers last year, OSU used just a six-player rotation after guard Cait Craft suffered a season-ending injury in practice the night before the game.
Ohio State has consistently gone 9-10 players deep this season, and head coach Kevin McGuff said he believes that is a big reason the Buckeyes have been able to advance this far in the postseason, par- ticularly in their 82-68 win over No. 4 seed Kentucky in the second round.
“Our depth was a big part of the game today,” McGuff said March 19. “We had some people come off of the bench that played great roles, and ultimately down the stretch I think that we were a little more fresh than they were because of our depth.”
In addition to their deep bench, the Buckeyes appear to be peaking at the right time. After starting the season 9-4, Ohio State has since rattled off 19 wins in 21 games.
The Buckeyes’ most recent loss, a 71-60 defeat at the hands of Purdue in the Big Ten tournament semifinal, snapped a 12-game winning streak March 4, but McGuff said after the win over UK that he still feels his team is playing its best basketball of the year.
“Our team in general has played our best basketball from February now into March,” McGuff said. “The Purdue game was a bit of an anomaly for us, but we have played great basketball in February and just had the feeling that we were kind of peaking as we headed towards March.
“So I’m excited about that and hopefully we can have another great week of preparation, come back down here, and be ready to go on Friday.”
McGuff and the Buckeyes are set to return to Lexington to take on the Irish, a team that Ohio State’s head coach is no stranger to. McGuff met his wife, Letitia, while both were assistant coaches in South Bend, Ind., in 1996 before the two were married in 2002, the same year McGuff moved on to take the head coaching job at Xavier University.
McGuff said March 21 that his time at Notre Dame brings back nothing but positive memories.
“I had a wonderful experience there both personally and professionally,” he said. “The program means a lot to me and to my family. I couldn’t say enough positive things about what that was like. It’s tough to go against people you care about, but it will be an exciting game and a great opportunity for us.”
In addition to meeting his wife there, McGuff also spent multiple seasons under legendary women’s coach Muffet McGraw. McGraw, who took over the Fighting Irish in 1987, has led Notre Dame to five Final Four appearances in the last six seasons, including four runner-up finishes. McGraw’s lone national title came in 2001, when McGuff and his future wife were both assistant coaches.
McGuff said he learned a lot from McGraw in his time at Notre Dame, most important how to lead a team of his own.
“The biggest thing (I learned) is how to run a program,” McGuff said. “She does that as well as anybody in the country – the organization and structure of how things work. (McGraw) was great to work for. She had high expectations, which was an environment that I wanted to work in. But she also allowed her assistants to do their jobs and impact the program.”
As for whom his wife, a former player and assistant at Notre Dame, will be rooting for, McGuff said she will be cheering for the Scarlet and Gray.
“She will be pulling for us,” McGuff said with a laugh. “(Notre Dame) means a lot to her as well. But she will certainly be pulling for us.”
Previewing The Irish
As for the game itself, McGuff is “cautiously optimistic” that star post player Stephanie Mavunga, who has missed eight straight games with a foot injury, could return for the Sweet 16.
Mavunga was seen participating in individual drills at Ohio State’s practice March 21 in the portion open to the media. Just four days before tip, McGuff said he is hopeful Mavunga can play in some capacity against the Irish.
The Irish will be without their star post player. Brianna Turner suffered a left knee injury in Notre Dame’s second-round win over Purdue and is set to miss the rest of the season.
Turner, the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, leads the Irish in points, rebounds, blocks and shooting percentage and has started every game thus far for the Irish in 2016-17.
While Notre Dame will have to tinker with its lineup without Turner, the Buckeyes have had time to jell without Mavunga with freshman post player Tori McCoy emerging as a reliable presence in the paint.
In her first two tournament games, McCoy averaged 13.0 points, 7.5 boards and four blocks, including a 14-point, 12-rebound performance against Kentucky. In that game against the Wildcats, she accounted for six fourth-quarter points and was a perfect 6 for 6 from the field, and McCoy attributed part of her success to the advice she has received from Mavunga.
“(Mavunga) is always yelling at me to rebound because I have a tendency to stare and watch, but she has helped me out a lot,” McCoy said. “She has given me some great pointers, and I really appreciate that.”
Not only will the play in the post be a major factor in the matchup between the Buckeyes and Irish, but so will the guard play.
Ohio State’s Kelsey Mitchell finally got out of her funk against Kentucky and would likely be matched up against Notre Dame’s Lindsay Allen in a contrast of styles at the point guard position.
Mitchell, known for being a volume scorer, averages 22.7 points per game and has taken 305 three-point shots this season. Allen is known more for her passing than scoring. She averages 7.6 assists per game while scoring just 9.4 points per contest.
Should the Buckeyes knock off the Irish, they would take on the winner of the game between No. 2 seed Stanford vs. No. 3 seed Texas in Lexington on March 26 for a chance to advance to the Final Four for the first time in 24 years.
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