The third-seeded Buckeyes were down four points and on the ropes in the second half their game against Mississippi State on Monday night in Nationwide Arena, but they showed a renewed sense of defensive purpose during the final 6:43.
The Buckeyes kept the Lady Bulldogs (23-10) from scoring during their final 11 possessions and finished on a 10-0 run on the way to a 64-58 win that advanced them to the Sweet 16.
"At this time of year, defense is what's going to win games," head coach Jim Foster said. "With this much intensity, this much on the line, shots some days are going to be there, some days are not, but your defense is going to be there the whole time."
Ohio State (29-5) was able to get those key defensive stands despite allowing points on four of the five possessions before that final 6:43. The last Mississippi State basket was a three-point play that sandwiched a media timeout by point guard Alexis Rack, who made a layup and converted the foul shot, her 13th points of the second half, to give the Lady Bulldogs a 58-54 lead.
Things quickly went downhill for the 11th-seeded visitors, who were seeking their second major upset in two games. During their final 11 possessions, the Bulldogs were 0-for-4 from the floor and turned the ball over seven times. There were no second-chance opportunities for a team that had 14 offensive rebounds over the first 33 minutes.
"Defense is always a big key," said sophomore Sarah Schulze, who made a steal as part of the run. "If you don't get stops then it just isn't going to be your night."
As the shutout run began to build, Ohio State's intensity – and that of the 4,842 partial fans – followed a similar track. For that, the Buckeyes could thank freshman point guard Samantha Prahalis, who made one of the biggest defensive plays of the run while encouraging her teammates in each timeout by telling them how many stops they needed to preserve the win.
"I just wanted to be the one to be like a reminder, saying, ‘We just need three stops now. We can do this. I know everyone is tired, we just have to step up,' " Prahalis said.
That the final moments were decided by defense had to bring a smile to the face of the old-school Foster. He had watched defense help the Buckeyes go on an 8-0 run on the way into NCAA tourney play when Ohio State kept opponents to an average of 59.4 points per game.
But defense was optional early as the Buckeyes and Lady Bulldogs ran up and down the court at the downtown arena in a chaotic game. By the time the second media timeout hit in the first half, Mississippi State was up 19-18 with just 8:46 gone.
Slowly but surely the teams sunk their talons into defense as no field goals were scored over the final six minutes and change of the contest. During that span, Ohio State made no shots from the floor but 10 free throws while keeping the Lady Bulldogs from points of any kind.
The run of 11 stops began on the first possession after Rack's three-point play; the MSU junior again was in charge of the ball the next time down the floor but was sent crashing to the hardwood because of a hard foul from Star Allen.
Rack jumped back up but any confidence gained from a 5-for-9 performance up to that point in the half seemed to have vanished. She drove to the hole after the inbounds pass but was blocked by Buckeye backup center Andrea Walker.
"My whole thing was to go out there and get stops," Walker said. "We knew once we stopped (Rack) we would slow their offense down because she was their main go-to player."
The Lady Bulldogs alternated turnovers and missed shots over the next five possessions before things truly fell apart. The seventh straight empty attempt came when center Chanel Mokango airballed a three-pointer late in the shot clock with 2:27 to go that bounced out of bounds and gave the Buckeyes, by then up 60-58, the ball back.
The next time down the floor, Tysheka Grimes – who had 20 points in the first half but just two the rest of the way – tried to drive and ran out of room, forcing a pass that went right into the hands of Prahalis, who then dribbled through two players to keep possession.
"I think the play before that I did something bad," she said, straining to recall. "I did something not that good, so I needed to make it back. I just got it and I tried to keep the clock going."
That she did; the Buckeyes grabbed two offensive rebounds on the next possession to bleed nearly a minute off the clock.
The final three MSU possessions were just as ugly. Rack traveled with 28.4 seconds left down just two, then Mary Kathryn Govero did the same with 15.3 left down four and Rack coughed it up on the team's final desperation try.
"When you have the turnovers that we had that were self-inflicted, then I think that we played nervous," Mississippi State head coach Sharon Fanning said. "I just don't think we were composed down the stretch in score-time situations."
By the final turnover, the Buckeyes could run out the clock secure in the knowledge that a first trip to the Sweet 16 in four years was assured. The fire in the belly that Foster had talked about in the days leading up to the game served OSU well when the chips were down.
"It just came down to who wanted to win more, who was wanted to get defensive stops in a row," center Jantel Lavender said. "I think our team came together. We said we were going to get stops in a row, and that's what we did."