Going into Saturday’s Sweet 16 game between Ohio State and UConn, few people believed the Buckeyes would win.
UConn entered the game as a 10.5-point betting favorite. A five-person panel of ESPN analysts unanimously picked the Huskies to win. Analysts from Sports Illustrated, The Athletic, DraftKings and Bleacher Report also expected a UConn victory, and the latter three even picked UConn to cover the spread.
History suggested there was good reason to pick UConn to win Saturday’s game. After all, the Huskies had made every Elite Eight since 2005 and every Final Four since 2007. Ohio State, on the other hand, hadn’t made the Elite Eight since 1993. For the past three decades, the Sweet 16 had been the hump Ohio State couldn’t get over while opening the second weekend of the tournament with a win had been merely a formality for Connecticut. And Ohio State had never beaten UConn before Saturday, losing all of its first six matchups with the Huskies dating back to 2010.
Ohio State, however, didn’t care what anyone else thought would happen on Saturday. The Buckeyes went into Saturday’s game believing in themselves, and their confidence was apparent in their play, as Ohio State defeated UConn, 73-61, for the program’s biggest win in 30 years.
“Obviously, UConn's a great program and they have a great team this year, but we came into this game expecting to win,” Jacy Sheldon said after the game.
Cotie McMahon, who led the Buckeyes with 23 points against UConn, said she and her teammates weren’t intimidated by the Huskies’ history of success.
“I mean, you don't obviously want to come into a game expecting to lose,” McMahon said. “I feel like, we as a team, we weren't nervous. We looked at it as any other game. I feel like that's really what helped us, not to feed into the fact that they are UConn, this great program, and not to feed into the media and how much they were hyping UConn up. We really stayed in our lane, stayed focused and believed in each other.”
OHIO AGAINST THE WORLD pic.twitter.com/W9ayjOSkYi— Ohio State WBB (@OhioStateWBB) March 25, 2023
Ohio State has been confident in its potential to make a deep NCAA Tournament run all season, but the Buckeyes’ inconsistent play down the stretch of the regular season – in which they went just 4-6 after a 19-0 start – and their limited March Madness success over the past three decades created doubts about whether they actually could. Going into Saturday, Ohio State had lost six straight Sweet 16 games, including all three it had played in since Kevin McGuff became the Buckeyes’ head coach.
With Saturday’s win, though, the Buckeyes have firmly stamped themselves as a Final Four contender, needing just one more win – albeit in another game they’ll be an underdog in against No. 1 seed Virginia Tech (9 p.m. Monday, ESPN) – to get there for the first time since 1993, when they went all the way to the national championship before losing to Texas Tech.
McGuff thinks the belief that his players have not only in themselves but in each other is a key reason why this year’s Buckeyes have been able to go farther in the tournament than any of his previous Ohio State teams.
“We certainly have some really talented players, but I think more than anything, our culture and the way these kids love to be around each other has been the key for us,” McGuff said. “We've had so many come-from-behind wins, and a lot of it has to do with when things go south, people start pointing fingers and so forth, you have no chance to make a comeback. But that never happens with this group. They stay together, they support each other and that's really just a lot of it has to do with we've got great kids in the program and just great chemistry.”
Slow starts have been a recurring problem for Ohio State this season, and it was once again on Saturday, as the Buckeyes fell into an early 10-2 hole. But the Buckeyes clawed their way back into the game to cut UConn’s lead to two points by the end of the first quarter, then took control of the game with a 21-9 second quarter. From there, they never looked back, leading by at least five points for the entire third quarter and by at least nine points for the entire fourth quarter.
Ohio State didn’t allow its slow start out of the gates to take it away from its gameplan, which was built around its vaunted full-court press as the Buckeyes forced UConn into 25 turnovers, including 18 in the first half alone. Once the Buckeyes started forcing turnovers and turning those turnovers into points, their confidence grew while UConn’s faded.
“I think that when they started pressing, we kind of got out of control,” UConn’s Lou Lopez Senechal said after the game. “We were not really ourselves. And I think it was just hard for us to come back to that.”
UConn coach Geno Auriemma felt that his team did not play at its best, but he also felt Ohio State deserved credit for making that happen with how well it played.
“I think Ohio State just outplayed us and took us out of a bunch of stuff that we want to do,” Auriemma said. “It's unfortunate that we chose tonight to play the way we did, but I think Ohio State had so much to do with that. I thought Kevin's team was really, really good and really well-prepared. And they knew exactly what they wanted to do and what they wanted to take away from us. We lost our balance and we lost our equilibrium a little bit, and I don't think we ever got it back.”
UConn forward Dorka Juhasz, who played for Ohio State for three years before transferring to UConn, said the Huskies had no reason to be surprised by how well the Buckeyes played.
“We knew they were not going to give up and they were not going to just put their hands up and see that we're UConn and just kind of shy away from that,” Juhasz said. “And we were just not able to respond, unfortunately.”
This year’s UConn team wasn’t quite the powerhouse that so many of its teams over the past three decades have been. The Huskies’ six losses this season tied last season for the most they’ve had in any year since their streak of Elite Eight appearances began in 2005, so there was reason for Ohio State to believe it could do what it did on Saturday, even when few others saw it coming.
None of that, however, should take away from the magnitude of what Ohio State accomplished on Saturday. No matter what happens in the tournament from this point forward, Saturday’s win will be remembered as one that both ended a long streak for the Huskies and snapped a long drought for the Buckeyes, making it the greatest accomplishment of McGuff’s Ohio State tenure to date.
“We beat an excellent team, program, coaching staff,” McGuff said. “We have tremendous respect for Connecticut and all that they have accomplished forever, but certainly this year. Because I told the team, like they certainly have had incredible success that no one will ever match again as a program, but they have a really good team this year. And they just started getting healthy at the right time. So I think we beat one of the best teams in the country today.”