Since before the 2022-23 season even began, Ohio State women’s basketball has had aspirations of making a deep run in the NCAA Tournament this year.
Now, it’s time for the Buckeyes to actually make it happen.
Entering the NCAA Tournament as a No. 3 seed, Ohio State is confident about its chances of going deep in the tournament this year. The Buckeyes made it to the Sweet 16 last year, and they believe they’re a better team entering this year’s tournament.
“I think all of us would agree that we could have gone farther. And we felt like we definitely deserved to go farther,” fifth-year senior Taylor Mikesell said in reference to last year’s tournament. “But you know, at the end of the day, that fueled us to kind of get through the summer and keep getting better every single day. And it’s propelled us to where we're at right now.
“I think having so many pieces back from last year that experienced that, getting a taste of that makes you always want to want more.”
Ohio State enters the NCAA Tournament with a 25-7 record, having won its first 19 games in a row to begin the 2022-23 season. The Buckeyes are just 6-7 in their last 13 games – a stretch in which they played 10 games against the other four of the Big Ten’s top five teams (Indiana, Iowa, Maryland and Michigan) – but have shown their ability to compete against the top teams in the country, most notably with a 79-75 win over No. 1 seed Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals in which the Buckeyes broke a tournament record by coming back from a 24-point deficit.
That has the Buckeyes believing they are peaking at the right time even though their record might not reflect it.
“We've had some ups and downs throughout the season and we’ve faced adversity, but I think right now, that's what helped us get to where we are,” sophomore forward Taylor Thierry said Friday. “So yeah, I think we are at our best right now.”
One reason why the Buckeyes could be at their best at the most important time of the season is the health of last year’s leading scorer Jacy Sheldon, who missed most of the regular season with a foot injury but says she is now back to full strength entering March Madness. While Sheldon came off the bench in her return to play for the Big Ten Tournament, McGuff believes she will be able to make a bigger impact in the NCAA Tournament now that she’s knocked off the rust.
“She keeps getting better each day, each week. So we're excited to kind of even have her have more of an impact,” McGuff said. “I don't know that we get past the first game in Minneapolis (against Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament without her). She made that huge three, and then she was excellent against Indiana as well. So really impactful, and I think she'll even be better now that she's got a couple of games under her belt.”
As Sheldon rejoins a lineup that features three other players who have all averaged at least 14 points this season – Mikesell (17.3 points per game), freshman forward Cotie McMahon (14.7) and Thierry – she believes the Buckeyes are “absolutely” where they need to be to make a deep run in March.
“I think we've experienced a lot of injuries throughout the whole team all year and I think finally getting everybody healthy and back playing with each other, it’s definitely exciting and our chemistry is, I think, at an all-time high,” Sheldon said. “So I'm excited.”
While most of Ohio State’s players hadn’t previously played in the NCAA Tournament going into last year, the Buckeyes’ returning players now have Big Dance experience they can draw from, which they think will make them more prepared for the challenges that await.
“Any experience in March is good experience. And, obviously, now that we've been there, we know we're excited,” Sheldon said. “But I think we know the competition, too. I think in a tournament, every single team you play is a good team. So I think knowing that and recognizing that is important.”
Ohio State can also draw confidence from starting its tournament run at home, as the teams on the top four seed lines host first- and second-round games in the women’s tournament. While playing in a hostile environment didn’t stop the Buckeyes from advancing to the second week of the tournament last year, when they upset No. 3 seed LSU on its home court as a No. 6 seed, Ohio State believes the opportunity to play two games at the Schottenstein Center is an advantage this year.
“We really appreciate what our fans have meant to us this year, and excited to hopefully have a chance to go out and play really hard in front of them again,” McGuff said. “(Ohio State’s players) love our fans, and they love the way the community’s really gotten behind this team. And so we're ready to hopefully have a great day tomorrow.”
The path to making it beyond the Sweet 16, which the Buckeyes haven’t accomplished since 1993, won’t be easy. If the bracket plays out as expected, Ohio State will meet No. 2 seed UConn – a team that’s made 14 straight Final Fours and 16 straight Elite Eights – in the Sweet 16. But the Buckeyes believe they’re capable of playing with anybody when they’re at their best.
“I mean, we lost some tough games, but a game that we really should have lost was against (Indiana), and we came back,” Rikki Harris said. “If we play like that, our first half was not good, but if our second half is like that every game, it's just like, wow, like what else can we do?”
That said, they know they have to avoid the letdowns they’ve too often had for stretches of games over the past two months.
“We struggle playing a whole 40-minute game together as a team, so I feel like starting the first quarter and finishing the fourth,” McMahon said when asked what she thought the keys to an NCAA Tournament run would be. “We have a game plan. And really just following that. And then staying together as far as you know, working together as a team. Just taking care of the little things.”
Before the Buckeyes can worry about opponents they could face later in the tournament, they must first take care of business against James Madison, who they play in the first round of the tournament Saturday at 1:30 p.m. (ESPN2). While Ohio State is an 18.5-point betting favorite against the 14th-seeded Dukes, the Buckeyes say they aren’t taking JMU lightly.
“March Madness is crazy. All these teams are good, no matter how low or how high they’re ranked. They obviously wouldn't be here today if they weren't a great team,” McMahon said. “So kind of just taking every team as if they were the No. 1 team in the nation.”
While the Dukes are playing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016, the Sun Belt champions enter the tournament with a 26-7 record and a conference player of the year, Kiki Jefferson, who has averaged 18.3 points and 7.9 rebounds per game this season.
“They're going to show up prepared and ready to compete. They have one of the most electric players in the country in Kiki Jefferson, so we know we're gonna have our hands full,” McGuff said.
Having not played in the NCAA Tournament in 2019, 2020 or 2021, Ohio State was happy just to be in the Big Dance last year. This year, however, making the tournament was always just a baseline expectation. As they prepared to play in the tournament they’ve looked forward to all year, they’re motivated to turn their tournament berth into a run to remember.
“We obviously are extremely excited and blessed to be here. But I think the goal for us wasn't to make the tournament, it’s to make some noise in the tournament,” Mikesell said. “So I think we kind of have that underdog mindset of kind of being in a spot where we're obviously being able to host, which is really good for us, but I think that the goal wasn't to be in it, it’s to make a run.”