The last time Ohio State played the Gophers, Buckeyes coach Kevin McGuff wasn't happy with the way his team rebounded and defended. The Gophers won 76-72 in January, in large part because they outrebounded Ohio State 60-40 and outscored the Buckeyes in the paint.
McGuff's team has come a long ways since then. Friday, they knocked off the Gophers 83-71 in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals in a game in which defense loomed large on both sides. Ohio State learned from that game in January and came in with a plan to get physical against Zahui and Shae Kelley inside. The Gophers, on the other hand, continued a recent pattern of intermittent attention to defense, and it cost them.
That isn't the only reason they're going home early. They committed 22 turnovers, which the Buckeyes converted into 21 points. They went nearly six minutes without a basket in the first half. Ohio State's Alexa Hart and Shayla Cooper did an excellent job of limiting offensive rebounds and second-chance points.
Zahui still rolled up some big numbers. She finished with 25 points, 11 rebounds and 11 blocked shots; the 11 blocks were a single-game record for the Big Ten tournament, and her 14 blocks in two games are a tournament record as well. She also broke her own Big Ten single-season rebounding record and now has 404 rebounds this season. Her triple-double was the second in Big Ten tournament history; the first was achieved by former Gopher Janel McCarville in 2004.
But as Cooper said afterward, Zahui got the triple-double, but Ohio State got the win. The Buckeyes have won five in a row by developing into a well-rounded team, with Big Ten player of the year Kelsey Mitchell only one facet to be feared.
"We got them a little more off the block and in different positions, which made it harder for them to get offensive rebounds,'' McGuff said. "We contained the ball a little bit better, which means our post players didn't have to help and get out of position to where they couldn't block them out on shots.
"Amanda Zahui B. and Shae Kelley are two great post players, and our kids had to work really hard. We knew we weren't going to limit them, but we wanted them to work for everything they got, and I think we did do that.''
Cooper said that McGuff emphasized rebounding and physical contact. While they were jostling with Zahui early in the game, the Gophers began trying to force the ball to her, which contributed to their turnover problems. Zahui, who attempted five shots in the first half and made two, put the responsibility on herself.
"I just have to catch the balls and work harder to get to a better position,'' she said. "We had some great looks. It's not so much what Ohio State did. It's more ourselves.''
McGuff said he also gave guards Cait Craft and Asia Doss the task of pressuring the Gophers to try and prevent them from gaining any rhythm on offense. It worked particularly well in the final 10 minutes of the first half. After Carlie Wagner's three-pointer gave the Gophers a 15-14 lead, the Gophers committed five turnovers and missed five shots, including three layups.
"You're going to make mistakes throughout a game,'' said Kelley, who had 23 points and 13 rebounds, with most coming in the second half. "You're going to have some slumps. The other team is going to go on runs, and you're going to turn the ball over.
"But I think our energy just defensively was the main thing. We just had to pick that up. We did, but we have to pick it up earlier. We're not so much worried about the turnovers. Those are going to happen in any game. It's just that energy on defense to force them to turn the ball over also.''
Gophers coach Marlene Stollings also was most concerned about the defense. "We have to defend better the entire game,'' she said. "We're doing a good job in spurts. But consistently, for a 40-minute period, we've not been solid.
"The scoring piece is going to come and go some. And if we're 70 (points) and up this time of year, we're OK with that offensively. But defensively, we cannot be giving up 80-plus points in March and really expect to have great success.''
With the Gophers now at 23 victories, Stollings said, she is feeling secure about their likelihood of getting an invitation to the NCAA tournament. But she acknowledged the Gophers, who haven't been to the NCAA tournament since 2009, are still green when it comes to poise and savvy this time of year.
"For our young ladies, I think that 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,'' she said.
A few other notes:
--Carlie Wagner bounced back from a poor performance in Thursday's victory over Purdue, scoring 18 points on 7-of-15 shooting and making four of eight 3-pointers. Shayne Mullaney went the other direction. Mullaney, who had a career-high 19 points against the Boilermakers, was one-for-nine Friday and had six turnovers.
Stollings has been saying that Wagner needs to elevate her game to meet the demands of playing in March, and she reiterated that Friday. "How she gets her shot off, as well as bringing something else to the table in her defensive play and rebounding, is something we're going to try to get her to step up here before the NCAA tournament,'' she said.
--The Gophers' bench was outscored 19-2 by Ohio State's reserves. Stabresa McDaniel, Kayla Hirt and Tory Jacobs played a combined 18 minutes; McDaniel made one of four shots.
--The Gophers' 12 blocked shots Friday was a Big Ten tournament single-game record. Zahui has 22 blocks in four career games in the conference tournament, second-most in its history.
--Mitchell, who led all scorers with 29 points, surpassed the 20-point mark for the 22nd time this season and passed Katie Smith to take second place on Ohio State's single-season scoring list. Mitchell has 765 points this season and is only nine points away from Jantel Lavender's program record of 774.