Ohio State opened Big Ten women’s basketball tournament play with a gritty 58-47 defeat of Minnesota on Thursday night in suburban Chicago.
For 15 minutes, the ninth-seeded Buckeyes looked like they might be headed home after only one night, but they dominated the last 25 to set up a quarterfinal game with No. 1 seed Penn State.
Ohio State closed the first half on an 8-0 run to draw within a point, something that looked unlikely at the last media timeout of the half when the Buckeyes were trailing 25-16.
The comeback started with an unconventional three-point possession. Amber Stokes made the first of two free throws then saw Raven Ferguson keep the ball alive for the Buckeyes on the rebound. It found its way to Tayler Hill, who fed center Ashley Adams inside for a layup.
Hill personally accounted for the last five points as she made a driving bank shot, split a pair of free throws then swished a deep two-pointer to pull the Buckeyes within one at the 47-second mark.
The eighth-seeded Gophers’ halftime lead of 25-24 was almost completely thanks to All-Big Ten sophomore guard Rachel Banham. The conference’s leading scorer during the regular season was 5 for 7 from the floor – including 4 of 5 from three-point range – and scored 14 of her teams 25 points in the opening 20 minutes.
Her teammates were just 4 for 23 from the floor, but the shooting struggles were not limited to those in Maroon and Gold.
The Buckeyes were 9 for 27 (33.3 percent) as a team with only Adams (4 for 5) making more than half her attempts.
Ohio State outplayed the Gophers to start the second half, outscoring them 10-4 in the first four minutes to establish a 34-29 lead, but the Buckeyes were only just getting started.
While suffocating Minnesota (18-13) on the defensive end, they found ways to scratch out points on offense and eventually built a 14-point advantage by the midway point of the second half.
That was the largest lead of the game for either team, and the Gophers would not get closer than nine in the last 10 minutes of the game.
Stokes, Hill and Ferguson combined to give Banham precious few open looks in the last 20 minutes, and she forced more than one shot with a defender or defenders draped on her.
“Defense was a starting point for us,” Hill said. “We knew that we had to hard switch Rachel Banham because any inch we gave her, she's a good enough shooter to knock that down. So defense is where we want to start. We wanted to pressure, we wanted to trap and scramble. So I think the last five, four minutes of the first half we started to do a pretty good job. In the second half, we came out and did an even better job.”
Banham missed seven of her nine field goal attempts in the second half, including a pair of airballs. She scored six points after intermission and continued to receive precious little help from her teammates.
Minnesota center Micaella Riche grabbed 15 rebounds but went 3 for 10 from the field. She had six points and five turnovers as she struggled against the 6-5 Adams, who in turn was nearly flawless for the Buckeyes.
Adams went 7 for 8 from the field and scored 14 points while grabbing eight rebounds. She swatted four shots and kept several plays alive with backtaps that went as rebounds to someone else.
“Ashley did an excellent job tonight,” Hill said. “I think she was wide low on defense. She did an excellent job. We came and trapped a few times on her, but Ashley, for the most part, did her part tonight and took it personally and shut her down tonight.”
Ferguson was also clutch when it counted, shaking off an early second-half ankle injury to sore eight points and more importantly grab seven rebounds. Freshman point guard Ameryst Alston nearly matched her for hustle plays, getting to numerous loose balls in the last 25 minutes and finishing with 10 rebounds and two steals.
Overall, the Buckeyes turned 16 Minnesota turnovers into 19 points and held the Gophers to 29.5 percent shooting (18 for 61).
Ohio State shot only 35.8 percent (19 for 53), but that was enough to advance thanks in part to a 17-5 advantage in free throws.
Hill had a game-high 25 points on 6-for-16 shooting. The two-time first-team All-Big Ten selection was 11 for 14 from the free-throw line.
“The ball was moving pretty well,” said Hill, who led the Big Ten in scoring during conference play while finishing second to Banham overall. “We just had to knock down open shots. Our coach did a good job making the adjustments of running different plays to get the floor spread and to get the ball in my hands so I’m coming off the screen and the floor is a little more spread and the players are more occupied so they can't just eye in on me.”
The Buckeyes (18-12) won their fourth straight game and kept alive hopes of earning a bid to the NCAA tournament, though they could remove any doubt with a tournament title this weekend at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates, Ill.
To do that, they will have to get past the top-seeded, eight-ranked Lady Lions, outright champions of the Big Ten regular season and 71-56 winners in Columbus over the Buckeyes on Jan. 27.
“They’re very physical, and you have to stand up to that,” Foster said. “You can’t let that have an effect on you. And I think for 20 minutes at our place, it didn’t, and for 20 minutes, it did. But I think that this group, between the ears, is in a lot better place to handle that kind of a team and that kind of mentality.”
Follow this writer on Twitter and find Buckeye Sports Bulletin on Facebook.