It’s true what they say — defense wins championships. But first it will propel the No. 2-seed Texas Longhorns to the Elite Eight after holding off the No. 6-seed Ohio State Buckeyes in a 66-63 victory on Friday night in Spokane.
Head coach Vic Schaefer, an Austin native and Texas A&M graduate, already has the women’s basketball program well beyond schedule after leading the Longhorns to the Elite Eight last season, setting high expectations for the program in his inaugural year on The Forty Acres. Impressively, Schaefer’s current squad boasts far better metrics than last year’s team, taking the court in Spokane Friday boasting a Big 12 Championship title and a hot 13-game win streak to close out the regular season.
Texas won and converted the opening tipoff and appeared poised to continue their on-court dominance following a statement win over the No. 7 Utah Utes. Despite the prowess of the Longhorns defense and their best-in-nation ability to force turnovers, the Buckeyes quickly took command of the floor with an 11-0 run in the first quarter. Ohio State proved capable of playing through the middle without receiving much resistance from Schaefer’s prestigious paint-protection scheme.
Kevin McGuff’s Ohio State Buckeyes entered the Sweet 16 ranked among the top-10 programs in the nation in scoring, field goal percentage, and three-point percentage. The Buckeyes surprised the Longhorns with their defensive preparedness when they employed a role reversal to force star point guard Rori Harmon into three consecutive turnovers. Much to the dismay of Longhorn faithful, Harmon played a mere eight minutes in the first half of the game due to foul trouble.
Texas began the first two minutes of the second quarter with a 7-0 run to rejuvenate the Longhorns offense and reclaim the lead. Ohio State and McGuff utilized the close score throughout the second quarter to preserve standout guard Jacy Sheldon, who took in much of the ten minutes from the bench.
Through the first half, Texas guard Joanne Allen-Taylor earned a trip to the spa after single-handedly carrying the Longhorns with 12 first-half points she accumulated by shooting 6-of-8 from the floor. Texas tallied a whopping eight minutes of scoreless time in the first half as Longhorn shooters endured four-minute droughts in both the second and first quarters. The gods of women’s hoops unveiled some favor for Texas in the final moments of the half as they denied Ohio State the opportunity to purchase a shot. Texas converted a handful of defensive rebounds to enter halftime with a 32-30 lead.
A well-rested Harmon returned to the hardwood to begin the second half. In a rare glimpse of Schaefer’s whiteboard, ESPN2 revealed the revamped Texas battle plan to be more of the dribble-drive offense Texas fans have come to know and love under Schaefer. Lauren Ebo made her presence known early in the third and appeared more comfortable in the low post role than she had been in the first half.
It’s safe to assume Texas successfully practiced their sleuthing skills during halftime as the Horns found their defensive rhythm and used it to punish an unrelenting Buckeye offense throughout the third quarter. The Longhorns held Ohio State to six shots during the first six minutes of the third. The Buckeye sharpshooters converted only four of those six shots in a welcome reprieve for the struggling Texas defense. The pendulum of foul trouble swung to Ohio State in the second half as the Buckeyes were called for three consecutive fouls just before the five-minute mark of the third.
McGuff took advantage of a media timeout to convince his Buckeyes to open the floor and Taylor Mikesell drained a corner-three after a sensational pass from Jacy Sheldon established a favorable OSU cadence before a back-and-forth scoring affair ensued to close out the third quarter.
Texas entered the final ten minutes of their Sweet 16 appearance with a 50-45 lead that came on 6-of-13 shots. Despite the paint advantage favoring Ohio State 22-14 to begin the fourth, five of Texas’s third quarter shots were delivered inside the paint. Texas entered the fourth with only three second half fouls, although one belonged to Harmon to bring her personal foul total to three. At the fourth quarter whistle, Harmon had yet to score in her 16 minutes of playing time.
Harmon ended her drought by pulling up in the fourth minute of the fourth quarter. The field goal extended the lead to eight points, the widest gap of the night. Both teams relied upon impressive free throw shooting to keep the game tight — Texas had sunk 8-of-9 free throws at the first television timeout of the fourth while Ohio State owned a perfect 9-for-9 mark.
A visibly frustrated Harmon was forced to retreat to the sideline after collecting her fourth personal foul with five minutes remaining in the fourth. Forward Aaliyah Moore, the other half of the Texas dynamic freshman duo, notched meaningful points throughout the final minutes of the game. The two-time Oklahoma high school player of the year reminded Texas fans just how much she means to the Longhorns as her tireless post work created abundant opportunity for the Longhorns at both ends of the court.
The value of Harmon’s presence on the floor became too much for Schaefer to ignore as he allowed the freshman to check in following an Ohio State turnover with four minutes remaining in the contest. A timely foul on a long pass from Harmon put Moore at the line with a two-point Longhorn lead. Moore’s inability to convert both opportunities led to nail-biting seconds under the Buckeye net as they nabbed two offensive rebounds before a travel nullified their eventual put-through. The travel was largely due to the unflappable defense of Ebo, who swiftly consumed the lane previously open to Ohio State’s Tanaya Beacham. Ebo drained both free throws to give Texas a two-possession lead with less than two minutes remaining.
To no surprise, the grudge match between the Buckeyes and the Big 12 Champions came down to the final seconds of the game. Harmon’s jumper gave Texas a three-point lead before an impressive jumper from Beacham brought the Buckeyes within one. McGuff utilized the Buckeye’s final timeout at 28 seconds to give Ohio State an opportunity to reset, but Moore dazzled with a clutch block that allowed Rori Harmon to capture the defensive rebound.
The speed of Harmon split the Ohio State trap before Braxtin Miller toppled Harmon on the sideline. After a lengthy review, the foul on Harmon was deemed unintentional, sending Harmon to the line where she sank both shots to elevate the Longhorns to a 66-63 lead. Harmon’s poise at the line combined with McGuff’s decision to use his final timeout earlier became fatal for Ohio State as the Buckeyes were unable to advance the ball.
While many storylines pour out of the Texas victory, few are more deserving than the pivotal leadership exemplified by the equanimous Allen-Taylor to keep Texas composed and productive throughout the turbulent game.
“Man, we’re just so tough. When adversity comes, we just never give up,” said Allen-Taylor, whose radiant joy outshined her stellar 17 points and three assists on the night. “Fight. That’s the name of this team.”
The senior went on to credit the young Texas team’s ability to remain calm and trust their individual roles as the key to their resolve. Production from the bench proves to be another crucial element for the Longhorns as the Texas bench outscored Ohio State 24-8.
A beaming Schaefer has now led the Longhorns to the Elite Eight in back-to-back seasons to begin his tenure as head coach of the women’s program. The Longhorns await the winner of the No. 4 Maryland Terrapins versus the No. 1 Stanford Cardinal to be played on Friday in Spokane. While the details of the Longhorns’ Elite Eight appearance will be announced later, it’s worth noting that Texas is 1-0 versus Stanford on the season after earning a 61-56 victory in Palo Alto on November 14.