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Friday, March 7, 2014
Upset bodes well for Buckeyes' future

By Graham Hays
espnW.com

Ashley Adams, Martina Ellerbe
OSU shot better than 70 percent in the first half, making all 10 of its 3-point attempts.

INDIANAPOLIS -- The regular tenants of Bankers Life Fieldhouse are expending a great deal of energy over the course of a great many months in hopes of securing the No. 1 seed in the NBA's Eastern Conference playoffs.

It took just 40 minutes for Ohio State to render a similarly hard-earned prize meaningless to Penn State in the Big Ten tournament.

Penn State has claimed at least a share of three consecutive regular-season conference championships, but for the third season in a row, the Big Ten championship game will unfold without the Lady Lions. Exactly 24 hours after it beat Northwestern to earn a place in the quarterfinals, eighth-seeded Ohio State beat top-seeded Penn State 99-82.

Such is postseason basketball, when a team's past determines whether it takes the court in its home or road uniforms and little else after that matter of seeding.

The hope for Ohio State, beyond two more wins and what would be an unlikely appearance in the NCAA tournament, is that this stay in Indianapolis says something about the future.

"We certainly aspire to be one of the best teams in this league, so to play this well in the tournament I think puts us on a course to do that," first-year Buckeyes coach Kevin McGuff said. "Also, a little bit, the style of play. We were really, really aggressive and up-tempo on the offensive end. That's what we want to get to, and that's what we're recruiting to.

"You saw glimpses of what it's going to look like in the future for us."

The Lady Lions might see it in their nightmares for the next two weeks. They will certainly hear about it in practice.

Ameryst Alston
Sophomore Ameryst Alston led Ohio State with 33 points on 12-of-15 shooting.

Not only did Ohio State score more points than any team had ever scored in a Big Ten tournament game, it scored more points in one game Friday afternoon than it did across two losses against Penn State in the regular season. The Buckeyes nearly matched their best scoring day against Penn State in the regular season by halftime Friday.

The teams traded field goals and the lead through the early going, both shooting better than 60 percent from the field, but, at some point, Penn State's hot hand cooled to a merely typical temperature. Ohio State just kept knocking down shots. After making just 10 3-pointers across the 80 minutes of the two regular-season meetings, the Buckeyes hit nine 3-pointers in the first 12 minutes of this game. When Cait Craft hit the last of those early 3-pointers with 8:42 remaining in the first half, she and Ameryst Alston had already combined for 26 points and nine assists.

Penn State was left in an unenviable position. It played primarily zone early in the game against a team that didn't shoot the 3-pointer particularly well before a strong first-round effort against Northwestern and its binge Friday. But as Alston and Craft continued to rain down outside shots, the Lady Lions had to come out of the zone. It was nonetheless fortuitous timing for the Buckeyes, who could both attack off the dribble against man-to-man defense and avoid the temptation of falling in love with the 3-pointer.

By halftime, the lead was 24.

Penn State played both Connecticut and Notre Dame this season. It never trailed by as many as 24 points.

"It's kind of funny because all season we've been sort of how we started," Buckeyes assistant coach Patrick Klein said. "If you look back at our games, how we started is really how we played. So when we start making shots early, our kids get a lot of confidence and they think they can beat anybody."

It doesn't hurt to have someone like Alston, who scored 33 points on 12-of-15 shooting and combined with Craft for 57 points. McGuff contended that Craft is capable on any given day of the effort that produced 24 points on 8-of-14 shooting, an equal mix of 3-pointers and nifty finishes in traffic in the lane, but that's a theoretical discussion at this point. The sophomore scored 29 points in a game against Florida Atlantic earlier this season but had reached double figures just five times since Christmas. Her contributions, as on this day when she also quietly made Maggie Lucas work hard to score 21 points, often come by other means. In terms of points, Friday might just go down as one of those days.

Alston, on the other hand, looks increasingly like someone comfortable doing this on a regular basis.

The only holdover from former coach Jim Foster's staff, Klein saw Alston both as a freshman who deferred to Tayler Hill and Amber Stokes and attempted just 149 field goals all season, and now as a sophomore who has topped 500 shots. She scored 31 points against Nebraska, 26 points at Purdue and 25 points at Michigan State, but it began when she scored 29 points on opening night against a West Virginia defense that might yield a No. 2 seed.

You saw glimpses of what it's going to look like in the future for us. … We just haven't had many nights where everybody was clicking at their highest level, and that's what we had today.

-- OSU coach Kevin McGuff

"She had to take on some tough kids," Klein said of the game in Morgantown, W.Va. "It was a tough place to play, and she really stepped up. I saw her verbalize to her teammate, and that was one of the things I didn't think that she did as much last year that she's really doing now, is really communicating and really being a leader on the floor and people allowing her to push their level of excellence."

If what followed was consistent excellence from either Alston or the Buckeyes, we wouldn't be talking about an upset of sizable proportions in the quarterfinals. If this was normal, Ohio State wouldn't have lost six of its final eight games in the regular season and hit even 40 percent of its shots just twice in that span.

Asked this week what it would take for any team to beat his, Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma said a combination of the opponent playing really well and his team playing poorly. That's how it works in the postseason. Penn State played poorly Friday. Ohio State played out of its mind. Ohio State can't do this all the time. Not yet, at least.

But at the end of a season with its share of frustrations, it can't hurt to see the reward they keep hearing awaits their work.

"He's a great coach," Alston said. "We love Coach McGuff. I thought he did a great job with putting plays together, as far as defensively and offensively. It was all about finishing the game. We're a hard team to play with -- we do a great job playing for 20 minutes. Today was about playing 40 minutes and finishing the game."

A highly touted freshman class arrives next season, along with two transfers. Four seniors will move on. But Alston and Craft are just sophomores. Raven Ferguson, who had 15 points and seven rebounds against Penn State, is just a junior.

"They're all capable," McGuff said. "We just haven't had many nights where everybody was clicking at their highest level, and that's what we had today."

That's easy to say after a win, but that's also the point: Ohio State did win. It still needs two more to make it matter in the present, but the future might already be changing.