March 25, 2023 

‘We feed off each other’: Ohio State’s peaking at the right time

First Elite Eight appearance since the Katie Smith era

In late January, it felt more likely than not that Ohio State had already played its best basketball. Madison Greene injured her knee in December and would miss the rest of the season, Jacy Sheldon was battling a foot injury and the Buckeyes lost three straight games to Iowa, Indiana and Purdue after a 19-0 start.

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With their two top guards out, Ohio State seemed to be limping toward the finish of a season that at one point saw it ranked second in the AP Poll.

Just a few weeks later, they’re bound for the Elite Eight following a convincing 73-61 win over UConn on Saturday.

Something flipped in the Big Ten tournament, according to head coach Kevin McGuff. The Buckeyes’ energy that panicked opponents early in the season was back.

“We had two significant wins, and we brought Jacy back,” McGuff said Saturday, of the two Big Ten tournament wins. “We got her back on the court and started to get the team in the sort of rhythm that we started the year with. I do think that was kind of a starting point to us getting back to playing the way we’re capable of playing.”

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Sheldon returned from injury, and Ohio State first beat Michigan for the third time this season. Then in the semifinals, it turned around and took down Indiana, 79-75, in a game it trailed 46-22 in the second quarter. Their full-court press was lethal, forcing 18 turnovers from a Hoosier team that only averaged 12.6 per game.

Although Ohio State came up short against Iowa in the championship game, the Buckeyes have now parlayed that success in Minneapolis into three more NCAA wins, and a season as successful as any at Ohio State in 30 years.

The win knocked out the Huskies before the Elite Eight for the first time since 2005. Sheldon and the Buckeyes’ relentless defense set the tone.

After UConn started the game with a 10-2 lead, Ohio State found its gear, forcing turnovers left and right. The Huskies finished the game with 25 giveaways.

“We feed off of each other, so when one person gets a steal and one person’s doing well, we’re all doing well,” Sheldon said after the win. “That’s what gets us going. I think that we rely on that press and to do that, we have to make shots, and once we did that and were able to get into it, we got excited, we got stops and then we’re all playing really well.”

Sheldon finished Saturday’s win with 17 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Freshman Cotie McMahon led the Buckeyes with 23 points, the latest standout performance for the Centerville, Ohio native who seems to shine the brightest on the biggest stage.

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“I haven’t been around a player in a long time that’s just got such a joy for the game,” McGuff said of McMahon. “She loves to play the game. I watched her in AAU in high school. You could tell that she was very talented, but I was really shocked at how hard she practices. She practices hard every day, and she really works at it, which gives me great optimism that we’re just still kind of scratching the surface of the player she’s going to end up being.”

“The level that this game was played at and how she performed was awesome,” added Sheldon, a senior, of her teammate. “It speaks for itself. She’s an amazing player, amazing teammate, and she’s a freshman, which is crazy.”

Now, for the first time since 1993, Ohio State heads to the Elite Eight. With a suffocating defense, a healthy Sheldon and a freshman in McMahon who continues to meet the moment, perhaps now the Buckeyes are peaking and proving it was no fluke that in mid January, they were ranked No. 2.

“I’m really proud of our team and our program of how we’ve evolved to be able to get to this point,” McGuff said. “I have so much respect for Geno (Auriemma) and his staff and all that they have accomplished. For us to be able to win this game in the Sweet 16 is obviously extremely significant. They’re just hard to beat. They’re so well coached. So this is a great win for us.”

And no less an authority than Auriemma himself echoed that sentiment. A coach who’d gotten his teams to the Final Four each year since 2008 sure sounded like he thinks Ohio State’s best basketball is happening right now.

“It’s unfortunate that we chose tonight to play the way we did, but I think Ohio State had so much to do with that” Auriemma said. “I thought Kevin’s team was really, really good and really well prepared. They knew exactly what they wanted to do and what to take away from us. We lost our balance and we lost our equilibrium a little bit and I don’t think we ever got it back.”

Written by Eric Rynston-Lobel

Eric Rynston-Lobel has been a contributor to The Next since August 2022. He covered Northwestern women's basketball extensively in his four years as a student there for WNUR and now works as a sports reporter for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire.

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