The Ohio State women’s basketball team had done enough before Sunday’s regular-season finale at Michigan State to secure a bye until the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals.
But the Buckeyes wanted the main prize of a Big Ten championship.
Of course, it was never going to be easy. But with a little help, they got it.
With a narrow win at Michigan State, followed by Iowa blowing out Michigan at home, Ohio State has been crowned a co-champion of the Big Ten regular season along with the Hawkeyes. Since Ohio State won the only matchup against Iowa earlier this season, in Iowa City, the Buckeyes are the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis, beginning on Wednesday.
Before the ball was tipped in the opening game, Ohio State was dealt a blow to seemingly the most important player on the court. Starting point guard Madison Greene, the team’s floor general and best defender, went out with a season-ending injury.
Expectations were that Ohio State was still an NCAA tournament-caliber team, but contending for a Big Ten title with the likes of Michigan, Maryland, Indiana and Iowa seemed far-fetched. However, behind the scoring of Taylor Mikesell and Jacy Sheldon, the leadership of Braxtin Miller, and growth of Rikki Harris and freshman Taylor Thierry, Ohio State claimed its first conference title since 2018.
“We really had to fight, scratch and claw to get here,” coach Kevin McGuff said. “I think that’s a good thing, to go through that and to kind of harden yourself as now we’re into March and it’s win or go home in the next two tournaments.”
Before the Buckeyes could even think about the conference title, they had to go to a Michigan State team that was projected as a bubble team for the NCAA tournament.
In a back-and-forth fourth quarter, No. 17 Ohio State held on with some clutch defense and rebounding by Thierry to win 61-55 in East Lansing.
Ohio State (22-5 overall, 14-4 in the Big Ten) led by as much as 50-43 with 7:16 to go, but didn’t make another shot until 3:21 remained when Tanaya Beacham finished a layup to put the Buckeyes back up 52-51.
On the next two possessions, Michigan State’s leading scorer, Nia Clouden, drove the lane against Thierry looking for a foul. Thierry avoided being whistled, and the stops led to two transition opportunities finished by Taylor Mikesell and Jacy Sheldon for a 56-51 lead with 2:27 remaining.
Throughout the game, the Spartans dominated Ohio State on the glass. Taiyier Parks grabbed one of her eight offensive rebounds and finished the second chance to cut the deficit to 56-54 with just over a minute remaining. With a chance to tie on the next possession, Clouden tried to drive the lane again, but Thierry denied her.
Sheldon made one free throw and missed the second, but Thierry was there again for an offensive rebound and was fouled. Thierry made both free throws for a 59-54 lead with 31.6 seconds left.
“I don’t know if we win or not if she doesn’t get that offensive rebound off the free throw and then convert two more points,” Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff said. “That was an absolutely huge play and kind of encapsulates who she is in terms of the extra effort.”
McGuff lauded the team’s effort to stay focused on the task at hand, and not getting distracted by what could happen ahead of taking care of Michigan State. Sheldon said all the team could do the last couple weeks was play because it had no control over what happened around the Big Ten.
“We focused on the stuff we could control and that was just going out every night and winning the game,” she said. “That was our main focus and we kind of let everything else fall into place.”
Ohio State claimed the conference title because it had played, and won, more games than Michigan and Maryland, who also ended the conference season with four losses.
When the Buckeyes lost at Maryland on Feb. 17, they trailed Indiana by two games, and Michigan and Maryland by one game. But all three of those teams lost the necessary games for the Buckeyes to just have to win out to be co-conference champions. Had Maryland and Michigan been able to reschedule a canceled game — and won — they would have also been co-champions.
With the conference title, McGuff’s contract is extended one year, through the 2023-24 season.
It’s one of the most unexpected championships in the program’s history. The Buckeyes feel like anybody can win the Big Ten tournament, so they’re just going to return to what they had been doing for the last two weeks.
“It’s a great accomplishment,” Sheldon said. “But I think we’ll enjoy it today and then tomorrow it’s right to postseason.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism