Ladies Take Their Show On The NCAA Road
After waiting for nine days to learn their NCAA Tournament fate, the Ohio State women’s basketball team, as head coach Kevin McGuff put it, has “a path.”
However, the Buckeyes (26-6), who fell victim to Purdue in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament after sharing the conference’s regular-season crown, won’t enter the fray labeled as a top-4 seed.
That went out the window when the team and a few media members gathered on Monday night to watch ESPN’s Selection Show and discovered OSU was given a 5-seed in the Lexington Region. The Buckeyes will face 12-seed Western Kentucky (27-6) at Memorial Coliseum on Friday (2:30 p.m. Eastern, ESPN2).
Perhaps the most excited Buckeye is former University of Kentucky player Linnae Harper, a UK transfer.
“It’s definitely going to be weird,” Harper said with a smile. “I’m playing two former UK teammates. But I think it will go well.”
The other game in Lexington on St. Patrick’s Day matches No. 4 seed Kentucky (21-10) against No. 13 seed Belmont (27-5) at noon. The winners will then meet on Sunday.
The Buckeyes, of course, would love to knock off UK on its home floor and prove to the selection committee they were under-seeded, but first they have to get past a very pesky and talented WKU squad that topped all combatants in Conference USA.
“We’ll have a real challenge in the first game,” McGuff said. “That program, they’re used to winning. They’re going to prepare well; we know they’re going to be well-coached. They’re going to play extremely hard.”
The Buckeyes were ranked No. 11 in the final regular-season Associated Press poll and 10th in the final USA Today coaches poll. However, the computers weren’t overly impressed with the Big Ten this season, causing Ohio State to enter the NCAA Tournament with an RPI of 27. That, no doubt, led to the disappointing seeding and ripped away a chance to play in St. John Arena on the Ohio State campus.
McGuff shrugged off questions about his team being undervalued but said, “If you dig deeper and watch us play and watch other teams play, we could have been seeded higher, but, hey, I understand. We’ve got a path and we’re going to be ready to go.”
The Buckeyes were on a 12-game win streak including an eyebrow-raising 98-87 win over Big Ten co-champ Maryland until the 71-60 loss to Purdue in Indianapolis on March 4.
McGuff gave his players a couple days off to clear their minds and improve their academic standing with spring break looming, but now it’s time to go back to work. He said the team will practice at OSU Tuesday and likely will arrive to Lexington on Wednesday evening. They’ll spend much of Thursday engaging in a walkthrough practice and handling interviews.
The team has been playing without Stephanie Mavunga for weeks because of a foot injury but could have her services in Lexington. OSU’s best interior scorer and the Big Ten’s leading rebounder during the regular season, Mavunga is “very close” to being ready for court time.
“We’re hopeful and it’s certainly a possibility but nothing is definite yet,” McGuff said.
If the Buckeyes can make a memorable run, they would be starting down a regional that will be held March 24-27 at famed Rupp Arena in Lexington. The Final Four will be held March 31-April 2 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas.
Ohio State is making its 24th NCAA Tournament appearance and has an all-time record of 26-23 in the Big Dance. OSU has made eight Sweet 16 appearances, including last season. The Buckeyes have advanced to the Elite Eight three times with their best showing being a runner-up finish in 1993.
In addition to winning the regular-season crown, Western Kentucky won the Conference USA tournament title and will be making its 19th NCAA Tournament appearance. The Hilltoppers are riding a 12-game win streak and haven’t lost since Jan. 28.
Interestingly, Ohio State and WKU met one time previously in the NCAA Tournament and that came in the 1993 Sweet 16. The Buckeyes won that game 86-73 en route to finishing as national runner-up.
McGuff is making his third-straight NCAA Tournament appearance with the Buckeyes and his ninth appearance overall as a head coach. He guided Xavier to the tournament six times from 2003-11 with a run to the Elite Eight in 2010.
In 2015, OSU was 1-1 with a second-round loss at North Carolina (86-84). In 2016, the Buckeyes were 2-1 with home wins over Buffalo and West Virginia and a Sweet 16 loss to Tennessee in Sioux Falls, S.D. (78-62).
OSU is led by All-American guard Kelsey Mitchell, who is averaging 23.0 points per game.
Defending national champion Connecticut (32-0) has won 107 straight games and is the overall No. 1 seed. UConn is the 1-seed in the Bridgeport Region.
The other top seeds are South Carolina (27-4, Stockton Region), Baylor (30-3, Oklahoma City Region) and Notre Dame (30-3, Lexington Region).