It was the first season-opening loss by an Associated Press top-five team against either an unranked squad or a ranked team outside the top five since 2008, when No. 3 Maryland fell to unranked TCU, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Before Tuesday, such teams had won 69 consecutive contests, including No. 1 South Carolina, No. 2 Stanford and No. 4 Iowa on Monday night.
“I wasn’t sure who would show up in terms of how good we’d be because we hadn’t played anybody yet, but I’m really proud of our kids, especially the first half,” Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff told Big Ten Network after the game. “We didn’t play very well. But we kind of got ourselves together at halftime and played a great second half.”
The Lady Vols, whose eight national titles are second-most in women’s college basketball history, entered the season as a Final Four contender. Led by fourth-year head coach Kellie Harper, they are hoping to return there for the first time since Candace Parker’s senior year in 2008.
And while Tuesday’s result won’t halt their long-term goal, there were problem areas they’ll certainly need to clean up to make it to Dallas. The Lady Vols couldn’t deal with Ohio State’s press and committed 29 turnovers, one more than their total made field goals. It marked the most turnovers for Tennessee since it had 31 in March 2013 against No. 10 Kentucky.
“I thought we were relentless in the press and really sped them up and got them uncomfortable,” McGuff said.
“We knew they were going to press the whole game,” Tennessee senior guard Jordan Horston said. “We just couldn’t execute.”
After trailing by 12 in the first half, the Buckeyes outscored Tennessee 54-34 in the final 20 minutes to take control, including 30-13 in the third quarter.
“Especially in the third quarter, we became really passive, and the more passive we became, the more aggressive Ohio State became,” Harper said. “And we just couldn’t get that back.”
“We made some shots,” McGuff said. “I told them at halftime, ‘I like the shots we’re getting. We’re getting great shots. … We’re just not making shots we’re capable of making. So keep playing hard in the press, keep the pace going. I think we can wear them down and the shots are gonna fall.'”
Buckeyes senior guard Taylor Mikesell got hot as the game went on, finishing with a game-high 25 points on 9-of-18 shooting. Fellow senior guard Jacy Sheldon had 14 points, eight steals and seven assists.
Appearing in her homecoming game and taking the floor for the first time since mid-February after suffering a season-ending injury her junior year, Horston led Tennessee with 20 points, while Minnesota transfer Jasmine Powell, also a senior guard, added 19.
The matchup was just the second between top-25 teams early on this season. No. 21 Creighton beat No. 23 South Dakota State on Monday.
Tennessee’s schedule won’t entirely let up, with upcoming nonconference matchups against defending Atlantic 10 tournament champion UMass and Indiana. Ohio State has Boston College and Ohio up next.
Harper says she intentionally put her team through a tough schedule so it could grow.
“We needed to play a tough team,” she said. “If we do a little better job taking care of the basketball for a small stretch, then this could have been a different outcome. I think that’s where we have to understand the details. Hopefully this will create a little bit more sense of urgency for our basketball team with those details.”
Added Horston: “Being able to see that early what we need to work on right now, I feel like it’s going to make us better. So we’ve just got to learn from it. … I’m not rattled. We’re not worried at all. It was the first game.”
Ohio State — coming off winning a share of the Big Ten regular-season title before falling to Texas in the Sweet 16 — now hopes to turn Tuesday’s win into even greater momentum moving forward.
“I think we have a ‘never say die’ mentality and we always like to be the underdog,” Mikesell told Big Ten Network. “At the end of the day, we like to be underrated. That’s what we come out and do, and I think that we have a really incredible team.”