Four Storylines: No. 3 Ohio State women vs. No. 2 UConn in Sweet Sixteen

Mar 24, 2023 - 11:31 PM
NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament - Second Round - Ohio
Photo by Tyler Schank/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Saturday at 4:00 p.m. ET, the Sweet Sixteen regional semifinal tips off in Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, Washington. It features two forces in college sports for different reasons: The Ohio State women’s basketball team and the UConn Huskies.

On the Ohio State side, their presence looms large over the sport in the size of the university’s athletic department and success across sports, even if the women’s basketball program doesn’t have a national championship trophy to its name. On the UConn side, they’re the winningest team in women’s NCAA Division I basketball, amassing a trophy cabinet including a nation-leading 11 National Championships.

There are numerous elements in this game. Here are four of the biggest storylines to focus your attention this weekend.

In the Paint

The UConn Huskies are a team that can hurt an opponent anywhere on the court but for the Buckeyes a spot to always watch is in the post. Ohio State isn’t a strong rebounding team and sides with quick dominating bigs create a liability for the Buckeyes.

UConn has that with forwards Aaliyah Edwards (17.0 points and 9.0 rebounds per game), Aubrey Griffin (11.6 points and 6.7 rebounds per game) and former Buckeye Dorka Juhász (14.2 points and 9.9 rebounds per game). Starting the game will likely be Edwards and Juhász. Of the two, Edwards has the traits to hurt Ohio State the most.

“One of the things that makes her so special is just she’s an incredible athlete but she can play around the basket and on the perimeter,” said head coach Kevin McGuff. “I’m hoping, especially when we have forward Eboni Walker out there, that we can kind of match that a little bit.”

Since Feb. 13, Walker’s started every game for the Scarlet & Gray with forward Rebeka Mikulášiková suffering a high ankle sprain on Feb. 8. In those nine starts, Walker’s results have been mixed but she enters the Sweet Sixteen on the back of two strong performances.

Against the North Carolina Tar Heels on Monday, in the NCAA Tournament’s Second Round, Walker scored 15 points and had four offensive rebounds and seven boards overall. Walker’s most impressive statistic was having zero turnovers, showing the growing patience she’s brought on the court.

Walker’s also quicker on her feet than Mikulášiková, although coach McGuff loses the three-point shooting of Mikulášiková when Walker is on the court. Walker’s patience and agility near the basket is crucial if Ohio State wants to compete for 40 minutes against UConn.

Underclassmen forwards Taylor Thierry and Cotie McMahon will join Walker in that responsibility. In the Big Ten Tournament, McMahon excelled especially against the Indiana Hoosiers, cutting off passes to AP All-American forward Mackenzie Holmes.

UConn’s Offense in the Press

This season, something the Huskies haven’t seen a lot is a a full court defensive press. According to Her Hoops Stats, UConn is in the bottom 10th percentile for facing the press this season. Now, the perennial contenders go into Saturday facing one of the toughest presses in the country.

That gives Ohio State a distinct advantage, if the the Buckeyes’ press can get set. For that, there needs to be shots falling for the Scarlet & Gray. Should that happen, UConn will need to adjust.

Back home in Connecticut this week, the Huskies worked on the press in practice, hoping to duplicate it with practice players. The players chosen, according to guard Lou Lopez Sénéchal “the bigger ones, the more athletic ones” in an effort to replicate what Ohio State does on the court.

While a practice team might not get everything right, it still helps UConn who not only doesn’t see the defensive set often but they also give up the second most turnovers in the Big East. The Huskies give the ball away 16.4 times per game on average, with a turnover margin of -2.12.

Jacy Sheldon’s Return Continues

When you take a look at guard Jacy Sheldon’s moments since returning from a foot injury, there are highlights of a game-winner in the NCAA Tournament, well-timed steals and a team-leading 14 assists in the last two March Madness games.

Even so, Sheldon is healthy but still not fully back to the pre-injury star. Should Sheldon’s trajectory of increasing productivity and defensive effectiveness continue against the UConn Huskies, it makes a game that many think will be a Huskies blowout something much more interesting.

“We play much faster transitioning to offense when she’s in the game,” said McGuff. “She just pushes the ball so aggressively and everybody’s got to come with her. And then we’re more effective in our press. Her ball pressure, her speed quickness, ability to cover ground, quick hands just puts us at another level.”

Sheldon’s scoring is also increasing. For the 23 games the Dublin, Ohio guard missed this season, the Buckeyes needed larger individual efforts on offense to make up for the Sheldon’s 19.7 points averaged in the 21-22 season.

In three Big Ten Tournament games, Sheldon scored 18 points, 12 of which coming in the 24-point comeback against the Hoosiers. So far in two NCAA Tournament games, Sheldon has 17 and 16 points against James Madison and North Carolina respectively.

If Sheldon finds the space to move and shoot against the Huskies, don’t count Ohio State out of the game.

UConn’s Health

An enemy for a lot of teams is the injury bug. This season, UConn’s felt it more than most. All season, the Huskies have mostly played with a 10-player roster thanks to injuries to star guard Azzi Fudd and Griffin. Not to mention guard Paige Bueckers and freshman forward Isuneh “Ice” Brady who each missed the entire season before it even began.

UConn returned both Fudd and Griffin as the postseason began. Against the Baylor Bears, in the Second Round, Fudd scored 17 points in the third quarter of the win and Griffin grabbed 12 rebounds.

However, like Sheldon, both aren’t back to their 100% selves. In Fudd’s five games, the guard is shooting 33.3% from the field, as opposed to her 53.4% shooting in nine games to start the season. For Griffin, the forward left the game for UConn against Baylor with back spasms, playing 19 minutes in the UConn victory.

The hope is both teams play injury free basketball, but the injuries leading to Saturday’s game still have an impact.

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