INDIANAPOLIS — Confetti fell. Tears streamed. Banners were raised. Players hugged each other. Parents snapped pictures. The team was honored for its conference title.
But Ohio State was not the team on the podium celebrating.
Redshirt senior guard Linnae Harper and redshirt senior forward Stephanie Mavunga sat in their hotel room watching Louisville celebrate its ACC championship title on TV as they waited for their game to begin later that night.
“I just remember telling her, ‘Yo, I’m trying to feel like that later. I really need that feeling. Look how much fun they’re having out there,’” Mavunga said.
With just a few hours between the Cardinals’ two-point win against Notre Dame and Ohio State’s game tipping off, the two Buckeyes began to get hyped up watching what they hoped to do later Sunday night.
“Just watching that game and then also South Carolina-Mississippi State,” Harper said. “All those games going on, it’s like, ‘Man, we’re next.’”
A few hours later, the confetti fell, tears streamed and banners were raised.
But this time, it wasn’t coming from Mavunga’s and Harper’s TV. They were Big Ten champions, having just defeated Maryland 79-69 in the conference title game. They transformed those thoughts into a reality.
“I turned around as soon as I heard one of the bursts of confetti and I was just like, ‘That’s what it was. That’s what they were going through a couple of hours ago and now this is me in this situation,’” Mavunga said.
A couple hours prior, many people had doubts about whether the Buckeyes could knock off the Terrapins.
The two teams met in College Park, Maryland earlier this season and the game was not close. Maryland smoked Ohio State, winning by 30 points to hand the Buckeyes their second loss in a row. The Terrapins held a plus-17 rebound margin, dropped 99 points and went 11-for-18 from 3-point range. They had their way in every area of the game.
But Ohio State head coach Kevin McGuff believes the loss actually helped the team in the long-term.
“On that particular night earlier in the year, they really gave us a beat-down, and probably the best thing that happened to us,” McGuff said. “Like Woody Hayes used to say, ‘Nothing cleanses the soul like an ass-kicking.’ So we got cleansed that day. Sometimes you need that.”
That cleansing followed a home loss to Michigan and preceded a defeat at the hands of Iowa, which dropped 103 points on Ohio State. But the Buckeyes responded by winning eight of their final nine games and claiming a Big Ten regular-season championship.
Still, Ohio State had to prove it could beat top-level teams. Those eight wins came against the eight lowest-ranked teams in the conference.
On Sunday, the Buckeyes left no doubt. They opened the game making four of their first 18 shots, falling behind five points after a quarter, but responded with a 27-9 second-quarter run. Down the stretch, Maryland made a run to come back from an 18-point third-quarter deficit and came within two points.
But senior guard Kelsey Mitchell drilled two 3-pointers and ended the Terrapin threat. Redshirt junior guard Sierra Calhoun dribbled the clock out to seal the win.
“And once it went five, four three, two, one, I was like, ‘Yes,’” Mitchell said, letting out a sigh of relief. “We finally reached our goal we wanted to accomplish and we accomplished it.”
Senior forward Alexa Hart, who started her first three games of the season immediately broke down in tears and searched for people to hug.
She, along with Mitchell, senior guard Asia Doss and redshirt junior forward Makayla Waterman lost to Maryland by three points in the conference tournament championship game their first season in scarlet and gray. The redemption only made the win sweeter.
“Freshman year, we got here, we came up short. The last two years after that, we came up short,” Hart said. “I just think that at this point of time, we kind of grew as a team and it was just like we need to let people know that Ohio State can make it that far.”
For the first time in four years, players from a non-Maryland team took turns climbing the ladder under a basket and cutting a slivers of the net. At least, most players took a sliver. Mavunga, on the other hand, cut the remainder of the net off the basket after her teammates took their pieces and put it around her neck.
“Oh yeah, that’s not coming off,” Mavunga said in the locker room with the net still draped around her neck. “I’m going to take a shower and put it back on. I’m really going to take this one and I’m going to really remember this forever because I’ve never won a conference championship tournament.”
Next, she and Harper will try to envision the next possible confetti-dropping, net-cutting moment: the Final Four.
In the meantime, Mavunga and Harper will enjoy the moment they already envisioned, then made happen.