Top-seeded Ohio State beat Maryland, 79-69, to hand the Terrapins their first loss in the event in a high-speed showdown that served as the latest entry in what has become the league’s most exciting rivalry.
“Ohio State had more possessions,” Terrapins Coach Brenda Frese said. “They were better than us tonight. They’re a tremendous team. This conference prepares us for what’s out ahead with so many talented seniors.”
Second-seeded Maryland had won the three tournament finals since it joined the league and was looking to become the first program to win four consecutive Big Ten tournaments.
That milestone was always going to be tough to accomplish; there had been a sea change in the Big Ten. Before this season, Ohio State (27-6) was the only program that had beaten Maryland in league play.
But this year, the Big Ten was stronger than it had been in years, and the Terps began their campaign shorthanded after three players unexpectedly transferred at the end of last year. They suffered another blow when they lost then-second-leading scorer Blair Watson to an anterior cruciate ligament tear Jan. 11, and the rest of the conference took aim at an inexperienced roster with a seven-woman regular rotation.
Maryland (25-7) lost four games after Watson was hurt, and though its lone regular season meeting with Ohio State wasn’t one of them — the Buckeyes lost, 99-69, in College Park in January — it seemed fitting that the Buckeyes were the ones to dethrone the Terps.
“On that particular night earlier in the year, they really gave us a beatdown and probably the best thing that happened to us,” Ohio State Coach Kevin McGuff said. “Like Woody Hayes used to say: ‘Nothing cleanses the soul like an ass-kicking.’ So we got cleansed that day.”
The Buckeyes entered Sunday’s game with 10 straight wins against Big Ten teams.
Kelsey Mitchell, the third-leading scorer in NCAA history with 3,363 points, was phenomenal as usual for Ohio State. The 5-foot-8 senior from Cincinnati led all players with 25 points, made five three-pointers and was voted the tournament’s most outstanding player.
Stephanie Mavunga added 15 points and a game-high 12 rebounds for the Buckeyes, who secured their sixth Big Ten tournament title and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
The Terrapins held strong against the top seed except for a costly stretch in the first half. They were powered by their veteran players — Kaila Charles led Maryland with 22 points and 11 rebounds, senior Kristen Confroy added 17 points on five three-pointers, and redshirt senior Ieshia Small added 13 points off the bench.
The second quarter doomed Maryland, with Calhoun hitting a three-pointer that set off a 12-0 run with a little more than seven minutes left in the half. Junior forward Brianna Fraser picked up her second foul right after the three-pointer, and both Charles and Frese said that threw the team off defensively.
“Just our transition defense, our awareness on Mitchell and [Linnae Harper], was off,” Charles said. Harper had eight points in the second quarter.
Maryland showed its youth during that streak and struggled to keep pace while the Buckeyes shifted into a higher gear. The experience gap between the two teams is vast despite the Terps’ championships — Ohio State starts four seniors and a junior, while the Terps have just one senior in the starting lineup, Confroy. Small comes off the bench, and both starting point guard Channise Lewis and wing Eleanna Christinaki played in their first Big Ten tournament this year.
Ohio State’s lead swelled to 18 in the third quarter before Confroy got hot and fueled a 12-2 run to help keep the Terps alive.
The senior, who entered the tournament as the league’s most efficient three-point shooter but had gone 0 for 5 from deep in Maryland’s first two games, found her shot Sunday and went 5 for 10 from deep.
She helped in other ways, too, flinging her body — with bruises from cupping therapy visible on her right shoulder — for a steal late in the fourth quarter that led to a Small layup that put Maryland within five. Confroy hit a corner three on the next possession, Charles followed with a layup, and the Terps trailed by just two points with 5:59 to play. It was as close as they would get.
“Hey, we’ve had a lot of success,” Frese said. “Sometimes it’s just not your night, and credit goes to Ohio State. I mean, they had hungry seniors — what did they have, five or six — that have been waiting for their turn. . . . If you would have told me at this point we would be 25-7 competing for a title in the Big Ten tournament after what we lost last season and with Blair? I’m really just really proud of them.”