Ohio State Keeps On Pressing
3:01 PM EDT on March 27, 2023
Done well, a full-court press has a way of turning spectator into Krusty the Clown egging on the Generals. Just break it! Break the press! It presents a challenge no more complex than the opponent spinning the ball on their finger. It is crude and obvious, college basketball's ultimate gimmick. And yet, at halftime of a Sweet 16 matchup on Saturday afternoon, ESPN's Elle Duncan was calling the most successful women's basketball program in history "the UConn Paninis," so thoroughly had Ohio State's press left them cooked.
Geno Auriemma likened the press to being trapped inside a carwash, his guards overcome by a tide of stress. The Huskies' better shooting and rebounding numbers meant nothing. In forcing 25 turnovers, the Buckeyes wiped away the game's other battlegrounds and said it would be decided on this one. The win that sent Ohio State to its first Elite Eight in 30 years showed just what this team can be at its best: athletic, dynamic, unforgiving.
Not every game of theirs does. For a team with such capital-I Identity, it's funny how mercurial they can be. The Buckeyes you watch one night might be totally different the next night, or even the next quarter. At play is a chicken-and-egg dynamic: Ohio State relies on the press for offense, but a press must be earned with offense. If the other team never has to inbound the ball, what's a poor Buckeye to do? Their games can snowball in either direction. A loss might look something like the 105-72 Big Ten championship game, where a press-proof Caitlin Clark made Ohio State pay for poor shooting. The wins come in every flavor. Against UConn, complete control. Against, ah, 14-seed James Madison in the first round, rallying from a 16-point first half deficit. "If we don't press, we don't win the game, for the most part," said junior guard Rikki Harris on Saturday. To her, the team's swings were just a function of persistence. "Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. So it might not work the first half, but it might work the second half. It just depends." So this is an offense built on floods and droughts. Either everything is working or nothing is. As Ohio State goes, so goes Ohio State.
When they play one-seed Virginia Tech tonight, they'll meet a team with some different press-breaking options, including swaggy guard Georgia Amoore and her teammate Taylor Soule, who Hokies head coach Kenny Brooks called a "freight train." Brooks said his team plans to break the Ohio State press by committee so as not to wear any one player down. But it's easier said than done, and the volume of basketball knowledge that can vanish under pressure shouldn't be underestimated. On Saturday, the press went unbroken and instead did the breaking: It helped to end UConn's astonishing 16-year streak of Elite Eight appearances and 14 straight years of trips to the Final Four.
The Final Four streak began the year Tina Charles, now a grizzled and vaguely tragic WNBA veteran, was a sophomore. Charles used to measure UConn's progress in distance to the White House. "President Barack Obama, I'll be seeing you soon," she said on the night of her first championship in 2009. When they won the next year, one of the first things she did was announce to Obama that her team was on its way back. Two-and-a-half presidencies later, after Ohio State's win in the second round, Buckeyes freshman Cotie McMahon looked into the camera and began to say something rude to Obama; his bracket didn't have Ohio State advancing past the Elite Eight. She was tactfully interrupted by senior Jacy Sheldon, who may not have wanted this moment defined by celebrity bracket beef litigation.
If anyone deserves to steal the show, it's McMahon. I spent the second half of the regular season a little embarrassed that I hadn't mentioned her when I first wrote about this team in late November. (My self-esteem recovered when I saw she'd only played five minutes in the game that prompted the blog.) McMahon was one of the youngest players on the floor Saturday, and no doubt the best, finishing with a team-high 23 points, five rebounds, two assists and two steals. Only 18 years old, she plays with a keen sense for pace and changing speeds. That intelligence, brought to bear with her 6-foot size, makes her a dazzling transition weapon. "She's just scratching the surface of what she can do," said Sheldon. She'll be a constant for years, no matter which version of Ohio State shows up.