COLUMBUS, Ohio — For three seasons now, the Ohio State women’s basketball team has built toward a defining win like the one the Buckeyes got Monday night against No. 2 Maryland.
It started when the Buckeyes landed Cincinnati Princeton guard Kelsey Mitchell, the No. 1 recruit in the country in the class of 2014. Head coach Kevin McGuff had gone 17-18 in his first season with the Buckeyes, but he suddenly had a player to build around.
Others soon followed. McGuff picked up elite transfers from North Carolina, Duke, Kentucky and Georgetown. He also hit the recruiting trail hard. Each of Ohio State’s three true freshmen were rated 5-star prospects by ESPN in the class of 2016. Five players on this year’s team were McDonald’s All-Americans in high school, and another was a finalist for Parade National Player of the Year.
Ohio State advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament when Mitchell was a freshman, and made the Sweet 16 last season. Along the way, though, the Buckeyes struggled to get it done against the nation’s best teams.
McGuff is just 15-27 in his OSU career against ranked teams, and it’s been especially stark agains the nation’s best. The Buckeyes own losses this season to No. 4 South Carolina, No. 5 Baylor and No. 1 Connecticut. Last year, Ohio State lost to No. 1 Connecticut, No. 2 South Carolina and No. 3 Notre Dame. They did manage to beat Maryland — ranked No. 5 in both matchups — twice, but threw away a shot at a Big Ten title by losing its last two regular-season games to unranked Minnesota and No. 20 Michigan State.
When unbeaten No. 2 Maryland came to town Monday, there was no shortage of storylines. A win would have given the Terrapins another regular-season Big Ten title. An Ohio State victory would put the No. 12 Buckeyes atop the standings with just one game remaining. Furthermore, it would give them that elusive win against a top-3 team.
The Buckeyes came out firing with a 35-point first quarter and eventually finished with a 98-87 win. Only a road game against Big Ten bottom-feeder Rutgers separates them from their first conference championship since 2009-10.
The title would be a welcome accomplishment, but it was the display against the Terrapins that finally showed what can happen when everything clicks. The Buckeyes have just one win against a ranked team this season. There have also been times where they looked underwhelming against lesser competition.
But against Maryland, with it all on the line, they thrived. They shot lights out for all four quarters, finishing an insane 63.2 percent from the field and 55.6 percent from 3-point range.
“I’m just so proud of our team,” McGuff said. “We’ve worked extremely hard. We’ve really made sure we’ve gotten better week-to-week. We aspire to play our best basketball in March. The only way you can do that is if you continue to improve.”
The Buckeyes are riding a 10-game winning streak. Barring a meltdown against Rutgers, they’ll head into the Big Ten Tournament as the No. 1 seed. At the most important time of the year, they finally look like a team ready to fulfill the enormous expectations that come with a star-studded roster.