It was the matchup everyone was expecting in Columbus, but for a while in both games it looked like it was going to be the exact opposite.
We talked about how Carolina let a double-digit lead get away from them against St. John’s and needed a fourth quarter rally plus some Deja Kelly heroics to win their game, but Ohio State trailed for the entirety of the first half of their game Sunday, most of it by double-digits themselves. They would begin a rally late in the second quarter, then continue it in the third to take the lead over a very game James Madison squad.
Fans may have been surprised to see the Buckeyes get a three seed while the Tar Heels only got a six, but Ohio State earned their home court. They started the season on a 19-game winning streak, finally losing against a top 10 Iowa squad on January 23rd. They would bounce between a win and a loss from there, but only lost to one unranked team in Purdue. They would then go on a Big Ten Tournament run as the four seed and knock out ranked Michigan and regular season Champ Indiana before succumbing to Iowa.
The pace of the game should be more to Carolina’s liking. The Buckeyes average 80.7 points per game, which puts them in the top ten in college basketball. As for scoring defense? Their 68.2 points per game puts them in the 270’s. They’ll be a challenge for the Tar Heels defensively, but they don’t necessarily stop the ball either.
The problem for the Tar Heels is going to be figuring out who on the Buckeyes to stop. They have six players that average double digits and scoring, and none of them average 20. Their biggest weapon is Taylor Mikesell. The 5-11 senior leads the team at 17.2 points per game, and shoots an insane 40% from behind the arc. It’s not a small sample size, either, as she has, by far, the most shot attempts from there with 256. Only Rebeka Mikulasikova and Rikki Harris for Ohio State have tried over 100, and neither are hitting at over 35%.
When those shots are missed, the Tar Heels should have an advantage. The Buckeyes average 35.8 per game while the Tar Heels average 38, and the Buckeyes on average have been out rebounded over the course of the season. Taylor Thierry is their leading rebounder at 6.7 per game, but Alyssa Utsby easily overshadows that at 8.5. Add that to the desire of Courtney Banghart to push the ball and get transition buckets, and the Tar Heels should have the opportunity to push the ball up the court.
Ultimately, though, the key to beating Ohio State is containing Mikesell. In their losses, Mikesell had gone only 20-58 from behind the arc, and that includes going 4-9 in a close loss to Maryland, and 6-10 in the blowout loss to Iowa in the Big 10 Title game. If Mikesell can shoot closer to 30% from three than 40%, Carolina should have have the rebounding advantage to grab the ball, run it in transition, and force the issue.
It’s not a guarantee mind you. Mikesell is already coming off a relatively mild performance for her against James Madison-only 14 points and 1-4 behind the arc. Cotie McMahon, the team’s second leading scorer, was able to pace the scoring for the Buckeyes on Saturday to help them rally. Again, they have several who can step up, but Mikesell will be the focus of the defense.
Both squads overcame upset attempts and the Tar Heels will be the road team, but it’s nothing new for the Tar Heels who have yet to host a sub-regional under the reborn format, and upset the host Arizona Wildcats last year to give South Carolina their closest game of the title run. They’ll need to draw on that experience again if they want to replicate their run from last year.