HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. – As a point guard, Kelsey Mitchell didn’t have to worry about stopping Gophers center Amanda Zahui B. The Ohio State freshman did her part at the other end of the floor, scoring a game-high 29 points Friday to lift the Buckeyes to an 83-71 victory over the Gophers in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten women’s basketball tournament.
Limiting Zahui’s impact fell to Alexa Hart and Shayla Cooper, who had instructions to get physical with Zahui and push her out of her comfort zone. Zahui still finished with impressive numbers, leading the Gophers with 25 points, pulling down 11 rebounds and blocking 11 shots, the most ever in a Big Ten tournament game. But the Buckeyes held her to eight points in the first half, and the Gophers’ spotty defense, ballhandling and shooting put them into a hole they could not escape at Sears Centre.
Gophers coach Marlene Stollings said she believes the Gophers’ 23 victories will secure an invitation to the NCAA tournament when the field is announced March 16. But she was disappointed to see her team lose its defensive focus against the third-seeded Buckeyes, a team the Gophers defeated in January.
The Gophers committed 22 turnovers and fell behind by as many as 19 points in the second half after trailing by 12 at halftime. Mitchell, the coaches’ choice for Big Ten player of the year, gave much of the credit for the victory to the Buckeyes’ defense against Zahui, who was named Big Ten player of the year by the media.
“Amanda is a great player,” said Mitchell, whose team plays No. 2 seed Iowa in Saturday’s semifinals. “For Shayla and Alexa to deal with her for 40 minutes, I salute them big time. I wouldn’t be able to do it. To see them do it and be successful at it was a great thing for us.”
The Gophers were carried by Zahui, Shae Kelley and Carlie Wagner, who combined for 66 of their 71 points. A three-pointer by Wagner gave them a 15-14 lead with 11 minutes, 47 seconds remaining in the first half. They then went without a field goal for 5:55 while the Buckeyes heated up, rolling through a 14-3 run to take a 10-point lead.
The Gophers made only three shots from the field through the final 11:46 of the first half and trailed 40-28 at halftime.
“I think we’re still working through what it means to play on this stage and to handle the increased intensity and physicality that comes with this time of year,” Stollings said. “We have to defend better the entire game. We cannot be giving up 80-plus points in March and really expect to have great success.”
After being badly outrebounded by the Gophers when the teams played in January, Ohio State created a plan to get more physical inside. Cooper said she tried to push Zahui off the block to spots where she wasn’t comfortable. The Gophers had trouble getting the ball inside to her, often overthrowing passes or seeing them batted away.
Zahui scored only two field goals in the first half while Ohio State outscored the Gophers 22-6 in the paint. Buckeyes coach Kevin McGuff said the game plan also called for extra pressure on the Gophers’ guards, which took them out of their offensive rhythm.
Ohio State hit only five of its first 18 shots, but the Gophers’ long drought without a basket allowed the Buckeyes to find their touch. The Gophers could not get closer than eight points in the second half.
“I think the game kind of slipped away defensively,” Kelley said. “But I think we’ll be fine going forward.”