By Alaa Abdeldaiem | @Abdeldaiem_Alaa
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS — It was only a matter of time until Kelsey Mitchell found her stride.
Coming into the day as Ohio State’s leading scorer, the sophomore guard was held to just 2-of-9 shooting in the first quarter of Friday’s Big Ten Tournament matchup against Rutgers. Her team was shooting just 17.4 percent from the field and found themselves down 10-2 in the early minutes of the game.
She was anxious. Frustrated, but determined. And with 2:29 left to play in the first quarter, Mitchell took matters into her own hands, sinking a three-pointer before scoring 18 of the Buckeyes’ 26 first-half points and pulling her team to just a 31-26 deficit heading into halftime.
It was the start of what would end up being a Big Ten Tournament record 43-point performance for Mitchell that evening, one that would help her second-seeded and ninth-ranked Buckeyes advance to Saturday’s semifinals against Michigan State with a 73-58 win.
“(Mitchell) is such a competitor and she just wants this team to win, so she’s doing everything she can to help us win all the time, and I think she was just a little anxious at the start,” Ohio State head coach Kevin McGuff said. “I wanted her to get a little time to settle down a little bit, and obviously, for the rest of the game, she was certainly pretty special.”
Mitchell’s point total surpassed the previous record of 37 set by Ohio State’s Jantel Lavender against Michigan State on March 5, 2011. Mitchell made 15 of 24 shots, including 8 of 13 from behind the arc. She moved into 11th place on the Ohio State all-time career scoring list with 1,650 career points.
Her dominant second half helped the Buckeyes outscore Rutgers 47-27 after the break, giving no chance for the Scarlet Knights to recover from the deficit.
“I didn’t know that it would be a special night,” Mitchell said. “I think it is special that we were able to win. I think that’s my main focus. It’s the whole Ohio State family’s focus — just to win, prepare, and try to do something special this weekend.”
While Mitchell said she was unaware of the extent of her record-breaking performance, her teammates certainly took notice.
As the only two seniors on the squad, Ameryst Alston and Cait Craft took special value in Mitchell’s extraordinary night.
“I thought (Mitchell) had an outstanding performance tonight,” Alston said. “As a team, we weren’t hitting, and she got us back into it. I absolutely expected that from her, and we were able to feed off of her energy and performance.”
Craft remembered the early moments when her teammates struggled. “At the beginning of the game, shots weren’t falling down for anybody, her included,” Craft said. “She came out of that in a way I’ve never seen. It’s really nice to be able to share those moments with her and be able to see her do that. I see how hard she works and how humble she is, and she deserves to perform like that.”
While Mitchell’s offensive performance turned the score in Ohio State’s favor, the team’s defensive performance was just as effective, tallying 30 points off of 24 Rutgers’ turnovers.
“At halftime, coach was saying that we needed to amp it up on defense,” sophomore guard Asia Doss said. “I remember him telling me, ‘We really haven’t seen you on defense today.’ I took that a little bit personal and got after it after that.”
The early slow start behind them, the Buckeyes now have their sights set on facing third-seeded and nineteenth-ranked Michigan State for the third time this season.
Ohio State won the first matchup 85-80 after trading leads five times in the fourth quarter. The Spartans took the second meeting 107-105 in a triple-overtime thriller.
“We’re going to have a challenge tomorrow,” McGuff said. “That’s the Big Ten. It’s a great league with a lot of great teams, and so as you advance in this tournament, it’s going to be a very challenging situation. We’ll get prepared and be ready to play Saturday night.”