COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio State players knew that to get farther into the NCAA Tournament this year, they would have to improve their defense. The progress was evident Thursday night as the No. 10 Buckeyes jumped out to a big lead and cruised to a 91-75 win over Minnesota.
The Buckeyes (13-2, 2-0 Big Ten) limited one of the country’s highest scoring teams to 39 points through three periods. They did nearly everything well in winning their seventh game in a row, including all six in the month of December.
Stephanie Mavunga scored 25 points and Kelsey Mitchell added 21 while dishing out a half dozen assists. Mavunga was sensational in hitting 11 of her 15 shots from the floor and grabbing five rebounds before leaving the game with 7:49 left.
“She was really active,” Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff said. “She ran the floor incredibly well. I thought tonight she really used her speed and quickness advantage and really moved around well. That was a really good game for Steph.”
Ohio State opened a 35-point lead by the end of the third quarter and led by as many as 42 before rotating out most of its starters and allowing Minnesota to chip away at the deficit with a too-late spree of 3-pointers by freshman Destiny Pitts.
“As far as the first half went, that was pretty much what we wanted to do on defense,” said Ohio State guard Asia Doss, who finished with 13 points. “We were making the extra passes, making the shots, helping on defense. I thought we were clicking on all cylinders in the first half.”
Minnesota (12-4, 1-2) lost its second in a row, having dropped a conference matchup with Nebraska on Dec. 31. Pitts paced Minnesota with 28 points, including seven 3-pointers, but she didn’t get in a rhythm until Ohio State’s backups were in and the game was out of reach.
The Buckeyes played tight defense, contesting the 3-point shots in limiting a Golden Gophers team that had been averaging nearly 87 points a game but shot just 39 percent from the floor. Minnesota turned the ball over 17 times, leading to 18 Ohio State points. They made less than a quarter of their shots in the first half when they were just 2 for 14 from beyond the arc.
“We got many, many really good looks that we wanted, but we didn’t knock those down,” Minnesota coach Marlene Stollings said. “Obviously, we didn’t get second shots off. You can’t be cold when you play them, and we knew that.”
Minnesota: Normally high-scoring Gophers fell in their first contest against a ranked opponent. Done in by a bad first half and good Ohio State defense.
Ohio State: Discovers its defense and gets a key conference win to start 2018.
“We’ve been really good defensively in spurts in the last couple games, and I thought the difference tonight was we sustained that much longer than we have been,” McGuff said. “I think we’ve been getting a little bit better, and we were really locked in and focused tonight.”
BIG START FOR BUCKEYES
Linnae Harper set the tone for the Buckeyes when she stole the ball from Minnesota’s Gadiva Hubbard and drove the length of the floor for a layup to open the scoring 15 seconds into the game.
Pitts then drained a 3-pointer to give the Gophers their only lead of the night. The Buckeyes ran away with it from there.
SHE SAID IT
“They’re very talented, as talented as I’ve seen in my four years going against them here at Minnesota,” Stollings said of Ohio State. “They have a lot of experience out on the floor.”
Minnesota: Hosts Michigan State on Sunday.
Ohio State: At No. 22 Michigan on Sunday.
Follow Mitch Stacy at http://twitter.com/mitchstacy