By Alan Robinson/The Associated Press
PITTSBURGH — They couldn’t handle Mississippi State’s speed and elusiveness. They couldn’t handle Alexis Rack’s outside jumpers or slashes to the basket.
Most of all, the Ohio State Buckeyes couldn’t handle the moment — and, because they couldn’t, another second-seeded team is out of the NCAA women’s tournament. Out, too, is the Big Ten, its final team not only beaten, but beaten badly.
Beaten by a team that was determined not to lose in the same round to the same opponent for the second season in a row. A confident, determined team that played like it could not possibly lose on this night, and didn’t.
“We just let them do whatever they wanted,” Buckeyes forward Sarah Schulze said after an 87-67 loss to Mississippi State on Tuesday night that, for the final 30 minutes, was every bit as one-sided as the score suggested.
The Lady Bulldogs (21-12) trailed by as many as eight points in the first half, only to use their significant edge in quickness to take control with an 18-0 run that turned a 32-26 deficit into a 44-32 lead. They never looked back in avenging their 64-58 loss to the Buckeyes (31-5) a season ago, sending them to the round of 16 for the first time in school history.
The seventh-seeded Lady Bulldogs play Florida State (28-5) in Dayton on Sunday.
Ohio State, which was looking forward to a relatively short drive to play in an in-state regional, can only watch.
“We stressed the importance of winning all the hustle plays and winning the little things throughout the game,” Lady Bulldogs guard Mary Kathryn Govero said. “We stressed taking the lead and not letting down. Too many times during the season we got up and had a little lull and let the other team back in.”
Ohio State never got close to getting back in this one, not with Rack cutting through the Buckeyes’ defense for 30 points with a variety of hard-to-defend moves and 6-foot-5 Chanel Mokango shutting down three-time Big Ten player of the year Jantel Lavender.
“We were excited to get an opportunity to play them again,” Govero said. “We believed in ourselves from the beginning.”
Lavender ended with 17 points, four off her average, but she scored only two in the first 19:30 of the game, and the Lady Bulldogs were well in control by then.
“We got outworked,” Lavender said. “They played like they wanted to advance. They fronted me and denied me the ball — all around, we got outworked.”
Ohio State became the second No. 2-seeded team to lose in the tournament, joining Texas A&M. It’s only the third time since the women’s bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1994 that a pair of 2-seeds lost this early, the other seasons being 2002 and 2007.
“The Rack kid had a great game, they got some momentum and I think we went through a blip … in the later parts of the second half we, between the ears, really lost it,” Ohio State coach Jim Foster said.
Rack ended with 30 points, 13 above her average, while Mokango scored 19, Armelie Lumanu added 17 and Govero scored 15 by making 5 of 6 from 3-point range. The Lady Bulldogs were 12 of 22 from beyond the arc to 10 of 15 for Ohio State, the nation’s best 3-point shooting team, and scored 37 points off the Buckeyes’ 24 turnovers.
Mokango’s defensive pressure also was a key as the Lady Bulldogs came from 15 points down to beat Middle Tennessee State 68-64 on Sunday, holding Division I scoring leader Alysha Clark to 17 points. Mississippi State needed a game-ending 13-0 run to win.
The Buckeyes looked just as confused and unable to react as Middle Tennessee State did during that run when the Lady Bulldogs began hitting from beyond the arc or Rack sliced through their defense.
“Once I get hot, the ball goes in like it does tonight,” Rack said.
The Lady Bulldogs can only hope the ball keeps going in like that for another few games.
“We don’t want to finish with this,” coach Sharon Fanning Otis said. “We are going to stay hungry. We need to stay connected and, however, you have to win, you have to find a way to get it done.”