By Ryan Gregory | @Ryan_Gregory_
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS – A 26-point, 21-rebound night by Ohio State senior Stephanie Mavunga powered the Buckeyes to a 10th Big Ten championship game with a dramatic 90-88 semifinal victory over Minnesota.
Mavunga, a fifth-year senior from nearby Brownsburg, blocked seven shots, including two in the final 20 seconds to preserve the victory. Mavunga, a 6-foot, 3-inch forward, became the first person in 25 Big Ten tournaments to exceed 20 points and 20 rebounds and provided a post presence that was vital against a team of slashers like Minnesota.
“She was just relentless,” Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff said of Mavunga’s performance. “She was absolutely unbelievable tonight. Her effort was amazing. She really tries to do anything she can to impact this team in a positive way, and just really proud of her, the way she played today.”
Three-time All-American Kelsey Mitchell scored 30 points on 10-for-26 shooting. Mitchell made six of seven free throws on an evening when the rest of the Buckeyes shot 8-for-21 from the foul line.
Mitchell has scored 240 points in nine Big Ten tournament games, 17 less than record-holder Jantel Lavender from 2008-11. Mitchell has scored 3,338 points, the third-highest total among women in NCAA history. The combination of Mitchell and Mavunga became too much for the Gophers to overcome.
“Anything that the team needed,” Mavunga said, “I felt like we both were there to do it….
“Even when I missed a shot or I would miss free throws down the stretch, I kind of felt like I let teammates down and I remember Kelsey just coming over to me and calming me down and telling me look at me in the eyes. That got me to calm down and that reminded me, Steph, it’s OK, just move on to the next play and just do what the team needs you to do.”
Minnesota senior guard Carlie Wagner scored 26 points, 19 coming in the first quarter to help the Golden Gophers build a 10-point lead. “The shots were just falling at that point,” Wagner said. “They were giving me a little bit of space, and I felt comfortable shooting, so I was just putting shots up. My teammates were finding me at the right time.”
Ohio State adjusted its defense in an attempt to limit the drives by Minnesota’s guards. McGuff said the Buckeyes played more man-to-man defense in the second half. Junior Kenisha Bell finished with 27 points and 10 assists for the Gophers. Bell made six free throws in the second half, but she was held to three assists and 5-for-13.
Mavunga, who made 10 of 13 shots, worked seamlessly in the post to keep pace with Bell’s impressive play.
After a third quarter that featured 51 total points, the fourth was a completely different game. Ohio State endured a 4:49 scoring drought. During that time, Minnesota built a six-point lead with 4:40 to play. Minnesota did not score again until there were five seconds remaining.
Mitchell’s defensive play helped limit Bell in the final quarter. “I had to stay in the game and make some stuff happen,” said Mitchell, who was charged with her third foul with 5:43 to go in the third quarter. “I just did my best to keep my hands up. Beat her to the spot as much as possible. I just kind of tried to play it cautious but then again play with a little sense of urgency.”
Mavunga made her greatest impact in crunch time. The Buckeyes were able to maintain a possession for just over a minute with under three to play as a result of Mavunga’s two offensive rebounds. Her impact also translated to the defensive side of the ball. Minnesota was twice in a position to tie or take the lead. Both times, Mavunga got a hand on 3-point shots – from Wagner with 20 seconds to go and Gadiva Hubbard with 16 seconds to play – to seal the victory for the Buckeyes.
“It’s March,” Mavunga said. “I mean, the madness has begun.”