SEATTLE — Ohio State and UConn’s meeting in Seattle was a collision of two teams that had been battered and beaten down by the regular season. But in the postseason, they found new life.
One had history on its side. The other, a little March magic and a nightmare-inducing defense.
The Huskies had been to 16 straight Elite Eights and 14 Final Fours in a row. Ohio State has been to just one Final Four and three Elite Eights. The last came in 1993, one year after coach Kevin McGuff had graduated from college.
March Madness is chaotic, but it’s also poetic. And Ohio State’s 73-61 win over UConn had equal parts of both.
Chaotic because of the Buckeyes’ intense pressure defense. They forced 25 turnovers, snagged 13 steals and had 23 points off the UConn miscues, including 14 on the fast break.
Poetic because, despite their historical differences, UConn and Ohio State took similar paths to the Sweet 16.
The 11-time national champion Huskies always have monumental expectations. This season was no different. But before it even started, Paige Bueckers and Ice Brady were sidelined with injuries. Caroline Ducharme, Dorka Juhász and Azzi Fudd followed. Then came five losses — not exactly a collapse, but unprecedented for a team that’s lost only 26 times in the last decade.
Ohio State came into the season ranked No. 14 in the country, but after winning 19 straight, the Buckeyes jumped up to No. 2, officially raising expectations. Then Madison Greene’s season ended with a knee injury, and Jacy Sheldon was sidelined after just five games. Rebeka Mikulasikova, who was in the midst of her best season yet, also got banged up.
But when March came around, both teams found themselves in better spots. UConn relished the return of Fudd, and Ducharme and Juhász were finally healthy. Sheldon was back for Ohio State and, though limited, Mikulasikova was also available.
After going through hell and back, both teams had a chance at the Elite Eight. On Saturday in Seattle, UConn jumped out to a 17-9 lead, before Ohio State climbed back to control the pace and trajectory of the game.
Eighteen of UConn’s 25 turnovers came in the first half. The Huskies knew the press was coming, and they prepared for it in practice. But in person, it was panic-inducing, and their offense shut down.
“They were all over the floor,” Juhász said. “I think we were just — nobody wanted the ball. Nobody was trying to get open and break that press.”
The press, plus a 23-point performance from Buckeyes freshman Cotie McMahon, made the difference in the game, UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. After 16 years of appearances, the most successful team in the country would not be in the Elite Eight.
.@OhioStateWBB's @cotiemcmahon23 1st half.🥶⚡️18 PTS⚡️3 REB⚡️2 AST 📺: ESPN pic.twitter.com/K8ieep4ow5— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) March 25, 2023
.@OhioStateWBB's @cotiemcmahon23 1st half.🥶⚡️18 PTS⚡️3 REB⚡️2 AST 📺: ESPN pic.twitter.com/K8ieep4ow5
What does it mean?
It means the better team — Ohio State — won. It means an incredible streak was broken. But as far as the future of UConn’s women’s basketball is concerned, the loss means virtually nothing. Next year, the Huskies will be contenders once more.
And as Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff pointed out in the postgame press conference, Paige Bueckers, one of the top players in the country, was sitting on the bench. Next year she will be on the court.
“The problem with streaks is the longer they go, you’re closer to it ending than you are to the beginning of it,” Auriemma said. “And it’s just a matter of time. It’s not if it’s going to happen, it’s just a matter of time when it’s going to happen. And it was going to happen sooner rather than later.”
Sooner came in Seattle’s Climate Pledge Arena with Sue Bird, one of the greatest Huskies of all time, in attendance. Her streak of 20 seasons in the WNBA just ended, too, in retirement. And with the end of UConn’s 16 straight Elite Eight appearances came the end of Ohio State’s 30 seasons without one. One streak ended with tears, another with smiles.
UConn’s streak ending doesn’t mean the end of UConn basketball as we know it. The Huskies will still get top recruits, including two top-20 incoming freshmen next season and another top-5 recruit in 2024. They will still play in Final Fours, still win titles. But other teams are joining the party. UConn’s loss offers a reminder of how special the program’s run truly was — something even the coach of the team that took them down can understand.
“They certainly have had incredible success that no one will ever match again as a program,” McGuff said. “But they have a really good team this year. They just started getting healthy at the right time. So I think we beat one of the best teams in the country today.”
Chaos, poetry, joy and anguish. One team moving on, one team going home. Two streaks broken. All at the same time.
Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.