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Women’s Basketball: Is Ohio State peaking or benefiting from its schedule

Ohio State redshirt senior guard Linnae Harper defends Purdue guard Andreona Keys during the Buckeyes game against the Boilermakers on Feb 18. Credit: Colin Hass-Hill | Sports Editor

Nothing went right for the Ohio State women’s basketball team in mid-January. It was consistently outrebounded, out-hustled and neither kept its opponents off the scoreboard nor scored enough to make up for the constant barrage of shots made by its adversaries.

During a three-game stretch a little more than a month ago, the Buckeyes lost games to Michigan, Maryland and Iowa, allowing 84, 99 and 103 points, respectively.

However, Ohio State rattled off eight straight conference wins after those losses against lesser competition and watched Maryland blow its Big Ten lead with a three-game losing streak of its own, propelling the Buckeyes to an outright conference regular-season championship.

Ohio State responded from the poor defense shown in the three mid-season losses by holding opponents to fewer than 68 points in each contest. It appears the Buckeyes are peaking at the right time, but a look beyond the final scores paints a more skeptical picture of recent successes.

Despite the blowout losses, morale did not seem expectedly low. Redshirt senior forward Stephanie Mavunga said she felt Ohio State still had a “target” on its back as the favorite to win the conference after her team beat Michigan State 78-62 to end the three-game slide.

Even head coach Kevin McGuff, who had just watched his defensively challenged team allow more points than any three-game stretch in his tenure leading the Buckeyes, took a business-as-usual approach, preferring to focus on being their best late in the season.

“I said this yesterday, our goal is to be at our best in March,” Ohio State head coach Kevin McGuff said after the win against the Spartans on Jan. 27. “There’s going to be high points and low points in every season. Let’s make sure this was the lowest point. Let’s learn from it. Let’s move forward in a manner that we’re going to be incredibly diligent about working hard to get back to where we were and to even be better than that.”

Ohio State senior guard Kelsey Mitchell delivers a pass as she crashes into a defender during the Buckeyes game against the Boilermakers on Feb 18. Credit: Colin Hass-Hill | Sports Editor

March has nearly arrived, and the team that struggled through those three games has won eight games in a row. The Buckeyes seemed to have listened to McGuff, peaking entering the season’s final month.

Ohio State had three games against Michigan State, Wisconsin and Penn State in which it allowed an average of 60.3 points per game, the lowest during a three-game stretch in McGuff’s tenure at Ohio State. But the Buckeyes improved upon that by allowing 59.3 points per game in the final three games of the season — against Purdue, Northwestern and Penn State.

Their offense has not suffered despite clamping down defensively. Ohio State has scored at least 78 points in five of the past eight conference games and has won each by at least 13 points. Everything seems to be clicking.

Yet, there are some glaring factors that suggest otherwise.

The Buckeyes knocked off the seven lowest-ranked teams in the conference, including two wins against Penn State, in a row to capture the regular-season championship.

Even halfway through the conference win streak, the Buckeyes traveled to South Florida and were destroyed, 84-65, by the No. 20 Bulls.

Ohio State knocked off No. 16 Stanford with a commanding 85-64 victory to begin the season, then nearly handed No. 4 Louisville a loss the following game, but fell 95-90 in overtime. That came in the first week of the season, and outside of an overtime win at Michigan in early January, it was the best the Buckeyes played the whole year.

Ohio State has particularly struggled against top-level teams with a dominant post player.

A rebounding-challenged team that starts four guards, including three who are listed 5-foot-8 or shorter, Ohio State had an impressive plus-19 rebounding margin in its final game of the season. But Penn State entered the game with the conference’s worst rebounding margin.

The Buckeyes outrebounded their opponents in just three of the eight end-of-season conference wins, despite all of them coming by double-digits.

The recent margins of victory, amounting to a Big Ten title, seem impressive, but they will not matter much if the defense and rebounding issues that have plagued Ohio State for years resurface in the conference and NCAA tournaments.

It won’t take long to find out if the improvements are real or if they have been enhanced by inferior opponents.

In order to win its first Big Ten tournament since 2011, Ohio State must go through two of its most difficult opponents of the season. The Buckeyes will likely play the Hawkeyes in the semifinals. With a victory there, they’ll have another shot at the Terrapins.

For a team with just seven rotation players, five of whom are playing their final season in scarlet and gray, the pressure is on to peak in March, and March will have arrived by the time Ohio State opens play in the Big Ten tournament.

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