OSU senior guard Cait Craft (13) defends during a game against Rutgers on Jan. 10 at the Schottenstein Center. Credit: Samantha Hollingshead | Photo Editor

OSU senior guard Cait Craft (13) defends during a game against Rutgers on Jan. 10 at the Schottenstein Center. Credit: Samantha Hollingshead | Photo Editor

The Ohio State women’s basketball team sits at the top of the Big Ten — in a tie with Purdue — after winning its first four games in conference play. Looking to continue their victorious ways, the Buckeyes are set to travel to Evanston, Illinois, to face off against Northwestern Thursday evening.

Fifth-ranked OSU (12-3, 4-0) and No. 24 Northwestern (12-4, 1-3) are scheduled to tip off at 8 p.m. on the hardwood of Welsh-Ryan Arena.

OSU has topped Northwestern the past four meetings, with the most recent game last season ending with a 73-64 final score.

Despite OSU’s current momentum, top-5 ranking and previous success against Northwestern, coach Kevin McGuff said his team is well aware that the Wildcats are not a team to be taken lightly.

“Northwestern is a great team,” he said. “(They’re) very talented, they had a great season last year, and they returned a lot of players. They play really fast, so we are going to have to be terrific in transition defense and hopefully we can get the pace going the way we want it to on the offensive side.”

The Wildcats started off the season strong, winning their first 10 games, but after that, things turned sour, as they have now lost four of their last six.

OSU, on the other hand, has struggled defensively, allowing 72.3 points per game, which ranks last in the conference in that category. Going against a high-velocity offense like Northwestern’s, the Buckeyes will be looking to buckle down defensively to slow the Wildcats.

Last time out, the Buckeyes were able to defeat Rutgers 90-78; however, there were moments when they took their foot off the gas pedal, which exposed some mental lapses.

“There were times where we could have put them away early, but we let off the gas,” said OSU junior forward Shayla Cooper, who netted nine points against the Scarlet Knights.  “I think that came with little fatigue.”

McGuff said he has talked to his players a lot about staying focused daily. If they maintain that focus, he explained, they will be able to earn the success they desire.

Northwestern is looking to get back on the right track after falling to Michigan State and Purdue in its last two contests. Defeating OSU will not be an easy task, but with the home-court advantage and the experience of five seniors and four juniors, the Wildcats’ fast-paced offense will look to take the challenge head on.

The Mitchell and Alston show

Arguably one of the best backcourts in the nation, sophomore guard Kelsey Mitchell and senior guard Ameryst Alston, the two leaders for the Buckeye offense, seem to have been born with a knack to score.

Saying that Mitchell has the hot hand would be an understatement. Mitchell leads the Big Ten with 25 points per game, which also ranks second in the country. Being at the top of the scoring ranks isn’t anything new to the left-handed guard, but being in the top echelon of scorers for the second year in a row has caused opponents to place more focus on her in their gameplans.

In her most recent outing against Rutgers, Mitchell put up her third 30-plus point performance of the season, going off for 31 points. Being the nucleus of the OSU offense, she will be the No. 1 focus for Northwestern’s defensive gameplan.

Mitchell’s partner in crime, Alston, completes the powerful backcourt, being a catalyst on the offensive end. She has made herself into a true playmaker, averaging 18.8 points per game and 3.4 assists.

Both Mitchell and Alston have the keen awareness to locate holes in the defense and find the best shot for each offensive possession. When the tandem plays well, the team plays well. OSU is 8-1 when Mitchell and Alston both score more than 20 points.

If Northwestern wants to put a stop to the Buckeye offense, then its first order of business will be limit the duo.

Wildcat D

Although OSU possesses a superior arsenal of scoring weapons, Northwestern only allows 62.8 points per game to its opponents, ranking fifth in the Big Ten. The Wildcats also lead the conference in steals, swiping away 11.9 balls per game.

The Wildcats look to make offense out of defense, as they try to generate a number of fastbreak points. Their heavy-pressure defense is led by junior guard Ashley Deary, who averages a conference-leading 4.63 steals per game. Coach Joe McKeown will likely put the speedy point guard on either Mitchell or Alston in an attempt to disrupt OSU’s offense.

The battle for the top

After taking on Northwestern, the Buckeyes are scheduled to battle for the top spot in the Big Ten on Sunday against Purdue (13-2, 4-0). Tipoff is slated for 2 p.m. at the Schottenstein Center.