By Ryan Gregory | @Ryan_Gregory_
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS — The Ohio State Buckeyes stifled a dramatic comeback by the Maryland Terrapins Sunday, winning 79-69 to secure the sixth Big Ten Tournament championship in school history and first since 2011. Ohio State’s victory halted a record-tying 11-game Big Ten Tournament win streak for Maryland, a three-time defending champion which had been undefeated since joining the conference in 2014.
Ohio State, 27-6, won for the 11th time in 12 games, and defeated a team that beat the Buckeyes by 30 points on Jan. 22. For the tenth consecutive game, the Buckeyes held a Big Ten opponent under 70 points. Maryland, 25-7, was prevented from becoming the first team in 25 Big Ten tournaments to win four consecutive championships.
“We’ve been through so much as a team, as a program,” said Kelsey Mitchell, who scored 25 points and was voted Most Outstanding Player of the tournament. “To get something, take home some hardware, it just feels good. We don’t know when it’s going to settle in as far as emotions are concerned, but we’re going to take every bit of it and we’re going to utilize it and have fun with it for as long as we can.”
Mitchell, the NCAA leader in career 3-point baskets with 486, is the third-leading scorer in NCAA women’s basketball history with 3,363 points. The Ohio State celebration on the court was going on when her name was announced as Most Outstanding Player.
“Well, I didn’t even hear half of it,” Mitchell said. “So much was going on, everybody was smiling, laughing, crying. It was just too much.
“But when I get the trophy, individually I guess it’s OK,” she went on, “but when you look at the trophy that you take home for your team and your program, that’s what matters.”
Mitchell was held to 15 points, nearly 10 beneath her career average, in her team’s 99-69 loss at Maryland. On Sunday evening she missed six of her first eight shots, her teammates were unable to pick up the slack, and the Buckeyes shot 6-for-24 to begin the game.
While Ohio State struggled to find its footing offensively, Maryland’s duo of sophomore Kaila Charles and senior Kristen Confroy started hot. Charles scored six first-quarter points on 3-for-4 shooting from the field. Confroy knocked down two 3-point shots at the end of the quarter. Maryland entered the second quarter with a 22-17 advantage.
The Buckeyes changed the game in the second quarter. A revitalized defense frustrated Maryland. Ohio State embarked on an 18-3 run, during which Maryland shot 1-for-10 from the field. The Buckeyes were not led by Mitchell, who set a Big Ten tournament career scoring record with 265 points, or senior Stephanie Mavunga, who scored 15 points with 12 rebounds and three blocks.
Instead it was Linnae Harper, a 5-8 senior guard, who appeared to do it all for the Buckeyes. Harper backed defenders down to score in the paint and rose above opponents to clean the boards. She had 10 points and nine rebounds in the half and finished the game with 14 points, 11 rebounds and three of Ohio State’s six steals.
“Honestly, I think it just started on defense,” Harper said. “(I was) just trying to bring a lot of energy on that side of the court or whatever, and just trying to bring some energy and effort to our team.”
Maryland made just four field goals in the second quarter. Ohio State buried 12 of its 21 attempts from the field. Ohio State outscored Maryland 27-9 in the quarter to take a 44-31 halftime lead. Maryland’s hopes of winning a fourth straight Big Ten Tournament looked bleak.
Mavunga scored eight quick points to start the second half and the rout appeared to be on. Ohio State led 55-37 after Mavunga’s layup with 5:08 to go in the third quarter.
But Maryland’s defense forced five straight misses from Ohio State. Confroy led the comeback by knocking down two 3-point shots and a deep jumper to cut into the lead. Going into the fourth quarter, Ohio State’s lead was just eight.
Mitchell, a three-time Big Ten Player of the Year as selected by the coaches, had one victory escape her in the first three seasons of her career — the Big Ten tournament championship. She watched Maryland cut the nets in 2015 and failed to reach the championship game in 2016 and 2017. Her 13 points in three quarters of work were well off her average. Maryland’s comeback gave the Terrapins a chance to take another trophy from her, until Mitchell responded by playing her best when it mattered most.
She scored 12 of her game-high 25 points in the fourth quarter. The Terrapins narrowed the deficit to two points on a layup by Charles with 5:59 to play. A pair of 3-point shots by Mitchell helped the Buckeyes regain control of the game. The first, with 5:39 to play, put Ohio State ahead, 64-59. The second, with 2:54 to go, gave the Buckeyes a 70-62 lead. Ohio State’s free throw shooting buried all hopes of a last-second Maryland comeback.
Confroy was subbed out of the game with 39 seconds remaining, the game well in hand for Ohio State. The senior scored 17 in her final Big Ten Tournament appearance, but it wasn’t enough for a fourth title. Overcome with emotion, she embraced coach Brenda Frese on the sideline.
“I told Kristen she’s greedy,” Frese said. “You know, we’ve had a lot of success with Kristen and everything she’s brought to the table, and for this team—nobody expected this team to be in this position this year. How they played tonight and through this tournament is extremely rewarding.”
Maryland is projected as a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament and will likely play its first-round game on the road. As for Ohio State, the victory will give the Buckeyes a favorable seeding. They’re projected as a No. 3 seed and could begin tournament play in Columbus.
“It’s a great opportunity,” said Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff when asked about home-court advantage. “I would be, obviously, thrilled with that and excited. We’ve got great fans. I know we’ll get great support if we get an opportunity to play at home.”
The ultimate reward for the Buckeyes would be if they can play their way home, to the Final Four at Nationwide Arena, not far from the Ohio State campus.