The top teams in the nation continue to dwindle, and now only 16 squads remain in the field for the 2016 NCAA women’s basketball tournament. One of the last units standing, No. 3 seed Ohio State, is looking to take control in its matchup with the No. 7 seed Tennessee Volunteers.
The Buckeyes and Lady Vols are set to tip off Friday at 9:30 p.m. in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to battle for a spot in the Elite Eight.
The last time these two teams met was in the 2011 NCAA tournament, also in the Sweet 16, giving Friday’s meeting a bit of déjà vu. The Lady Vols came out on top in that one 85-75, but both programs are in radically different positions now than they were in 2011.
For starters, legendary coach Pat Summitt was still at the helm of Tennessee in her 37th season as the head coach. Summitt and the Lady Vols claimed a SEC tournament crown after going undefeated in their conference schedule.
The Buckeyes were also directed by a different coach in 2011: Jim Foster, who was in his 10th season as their head coach. Foster and the Buckeyes went into the NCAA tournament winning their third consecutive Big Ten tournament championship, tying a conference record.
Tennessee also had a slew of talent, with All-American Shekinna Stricklen and the 17th overall pick of the 2011 WNBA draft, Angie Bjorklund, leading the way. These two players acted as a dynamic duo and were too much for OSU to handle.
Nowadays, the Buckeyes and Lady Vols are still known as two of the top women’s basketball programs in the nation, but they lack the hardware to establish their names in the record books.
This season, Tennessee and OSU have arguably two of the top individual players in the country in Tennessee redshirt sophomore guard Diamond DeShields and OSU sophomore guard Kelsey Mitchell. The two high-profile talents have oftentimes showcased their abilities to tear up defenses singlehandedly, but both players are aware that a spectacular individual performance cannot defeat an all-around team effort.
The 6-foot-1 DeShields, who transferred from North Carolina prior to becoming a Lady Vol, has averaged 14.2 points per game this season and continues to be the star of the Tennessee offense. She is coming off a strong performance in the second round in which she scored 24 points on 9-of-17 shooting in the Lady Vols’ upset over second-seeded Arizona State.
Mitchell, on the other hand, is entering Friday’s contest coming off a 45-point outburst against West Virginia on Sunday, an OSU tournament record.
In her sophomore campaign, Mitchell is averaging 26.3 points per game and shooting 40.3 percent from 3-point land. With her backcourt partner, senior Ameryst Alston, dealing with wrist issues that limit her time on the floor, Mitchell will have to take more control than usual. But that is not a task that is out of reach for the Cincinnati native.
Enhancing their arsenal
Although the Lady Vols will turn to DeShields as their first scoring option, they have improved as a team and have expanded their offensive arsenal.
Redshirt sophomore center Mercedes Russell is another key performer for the Lady Vols, standing at 6-foot-6 and contributing as a powerful and efficient post player. In the second round against Arizona State, Russell brought in 12 points and blocked two shots. She currently ranks seventh in program history for blocks in a season with 66.
Junior guard Jordan Reynolds contributed 12 points as well in the Arizona State contest, and is the playmaker for the Tennessee offense. With Reynolds scoring more as of late, the floor could open up for DeShields to do more work, also taking pressure off her shoulders.
Elite Eight looms
After the Friday contest, the winner of OSU vs. Tennessee will advance to take on the victor between No. 1 seed South Carolina and No. 4 seed Syracuse on Sunday.