When asked if she was eager to play against Kelsey Mitchell in Friday's Big Ten quarterfinals, Amanda Zahui B. didn't take the bait. "I'm motivated to go against any team right now,'' the Gophers center said Thursday, after her team's second-round victory over Purdue. "We can't focus on awards right now. We've got too much at stake. Whoever is out there, we're going to bring it.''
Zahui's outstanding season won her the title of Big Ten player of the year, as chosen by the media. Mitchell, the Buckeyes' precocious point guard, was named conference player of the year by coaches. The presence of those dominating yet very different players should make for an intriguing game tonight at Sears Centre, as the No. 6-seeded Gophers take on the No. 3-seeded Buckeyes in the day's last quarterfinal.
The 5-8 Mitchell has been lights-out for Ohio State since she first put on the uniform. In her college debut, against Virginia, she scored 26 points, and she has scored 20 or more in 21 of her 30 games this season. Her current average of 24.5 points per game is second in the country to Wagner's Jasmine Nwajei (24.8), giving her a chance to make history. No freshman ever has led the country in scoring.
Mitchell's 110 three-pointers are the most in NCAA Division I and the highest single-season total in Ohio State history. With 736 points, she is within reach of Jantel Lavender's school record of 774 set in 2010-11. She is on the watch lists for several major awards, and her 24.5 points/4.1 assists per game account for 42.3 percent of the Buckeyes' offense.
We could go on, but you get the point. The Gophers--who have been defensively challenged in several games lately--can't afford any lapses against Ohio State. In their 76-72 victory over the Buckeyes in Columbus on Jan. 15, Mitchell made a season-high nine three-pointers (on 20 attempts) and finished with 36 points and seven assists before fouling out late. Her backcourt mate, Ameryst Alston, also is a superb talent, averaging 20.2 points for the No. 7 offense in the country (80.5 points per game).
The Gophers counter with Zahui, and they have a decided advantage inside. The Buckeyes lack both size and experience in the post. Freshman center Alexa Hart is 6-3 and is relatively slight; the Columbus Dispatch reported she is up to 153 pounds after starting the season at 143. Hart was just 3-of-13 against the Gophers, with seven rebounds. (It should be noted that Zahui didn't have a great game against the Buckeyes; she made five of 15 shots and got eight rebounds in only 23 minutes before fouling out.) Hart does have 110 blocks and has been scoring more lately, hitting double figures in six of the past eight games.
Ohio State is playing very well right now. It enters tonight's game with four consecutive victories, including 18-point pummelings of two teams who recently handled the Gophers, Iowa and Nebraska.
Kayla Hirt said after Thursday's victory that the Gophers "focus better when we're under pressure.'' To beat the Buckeyes, they're going to have to lock it in for 40 minutes.
In earlier games today, Maryland looked great in a 70-60 win over Michigan State, and Minneapolis/Hopkins High product Nia Coffey was instrumental to Northwestern's second-half rally that pushed it past Rutgers 62-57. The Wildcats trailed by 15 points with four minutes left in the first half and were down 10 at halftime. They started the second half with a 29-9 run to win a Big Ten tournament game for the first time since 2011.
The 'Cats are only two victories away from tying the school record of 25. Coffey finished with 12 points on four-of-seven shooting, four rebounds, three blocks and two steals for a Northwestern offense that had five players score in double figures.
We'll have full coverage on startribune.com after the game.