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OSU scoring duo at perfect speed

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- It came down to the wire when Ohio State played at Indiana in a recent Big Ten game, but with one final breakneck rush barely two minutes from the end of regulation and one more jump shot that dropped through the bottom of the net, Buckeyes freshman Kelsey Mitchell secured the final margin in Assembly Hall.

The tally: 52-49.

That isn't what the scoreboard read, mind you. By the time Mitchell, still on the court because her team had no bench to clear, hit her final shot, the outcome as recorded for posterity in Ohio State's 103-49 win was long since settled. What remained in doubt until those final minutes and that final shot was the outcome in the game within the game that Mitchell and junior teammate Ameryst Alston are capable of winning almost any time they take the court.

Mitchell and Alston, on their own, outscored the Hoosiers. Alston scored 27 points, Mitchell 25.

They made 21 shots; Indiana made 18.

"I think if the [WNBA] draft was today they would both be a first and second draft pick; I really do," Indiana coach Teri Moren said after the demolition of her team was complete. "I think they're that good. You're talking about a two-headed monster over there on the other side with those two kids. Mitchell just being a freshman, the thought of having to face her the next four years is pretty daunting for our group. And Alston was just terrific tonight."

The top two picks in the draft? Perhaps a foray into hyperbole.

Then again, 2½ weeks previously the duo did the same thing against a ranked West Virginia team.

At least this much is not hyperbole: No two teammates in college basketball do more for a team.

With a roster comprised, for much of the past month and a half, of seven or eight available players because of a series of injuries, the effects so severe that coaches talked a former player enrolled in medical school who had eligibility remaining into a comeback, it looked for all the world like Kevin McGuff's second season in Columbus would be a lost one. Instead, as Minnesota comes to town for what is suddenly an important game Thursday -- the Gophers another group whose season appeared lost when Rachel Banham was injured but who are thriving -- Ohio State looks capable of returning to the NCAA tournament after a rare two-year absence.

When the week began, there were only 12 players in the country who averaged more points per game than Alston. One of them happened to be her teammate, who over the weekend edged ahead of Washington's Kelsey Plum in a back-and-forth race for the top spot on that list. No other team in the country had two players ranked in even the top 30 nationally in scoring. Only two others sets of teammates, at Washington State and Akron, cracked the top 50.

Ohio State had its share of prolific duos in recent years -- Jessica Davenport and Brandie Hoskins, Jantel Lavender and Samantha Prahalis, Prahalis and Tayler Hill -- but even the Buckeyes haven't had a combination this prolific.

A junior, Alston rivals Plum as a model of efficiency among the nation's leading scorers. Alston shoots 50 percent from the field, 36 percent from the 3-point line and 83 percent from the free throw line and has trimmed away nearly a full turnover per game from her sophomore season to the current one. She does it with a lull-you-to-sleep style that earned its own name from her teammates.

"We call it a slow good because she's smooth, she real smooth," Mitchell explained. "You can't really tell what's going to happen, but it happens fast. It starts off slow, but it end up good -- slow good.

"I just adore the way she plays, I think she's a fantastic player."

If Alston is slow good, perhaps that makes Mitchell fast good. It's an apt description of the speed with which one of the nation's most highly touted recruits transitioned to the college game. There remains a lot of Big Ten basketball to play, but Elena Delle Donne was the most recent freshman to finish a season ranked in the top five in the nation in scoring, while Courtney Paris was the only player in the past decade to do so while playing in a major conference. That isn't bad company to keep.

Someone with pull in the karma department must like McGuff, the man who recruited and signed but never coached Plum at Washington, who is averaging 24.8 PPG behind Mitchell's 24.9 PPG.

"Give me credit for one thing, I saw two good players," McGuff noted. "Not that it was hard to pick those guys out."

But fast good also describes the pace at which Mitchell plays, sometimes to the amazement of onlookers and opponents and sometimes to her own detriment.

And sometimes both at the same time.

"I do like to play fast. I do, I do, I do," Mitchell said, the staccato repetition coming well, rapidly. "But I know at the college level, these girls, they can play fast, too. Everybody can play fast. So I'm learning to change paces."

As might be expected of a freshman, she doesn't shoot the ball with the same efficiency as Alston, although her 3-point accuracy on nearly 10 attempts per game mitigates an overall field goal percentage that hovers around 40 percent. And there are turnovers, nearly four per game to this point in the season. But if learning to occasionally leave her motor in fourth gear is part of the process, McGuff doesn't want her in the right lane with her blinkers on, either. Despite the short bench, the Buckeyes play fast -- the game after the win at Indiana they dropped a 100-94 decision in overtime at Michigan.

"You're talking about a two-headed monster … Mitchell just being a freshman, the thought of having to face her the next four years is pretty daunting for our group." Indiana coach Teri Moren on Ohio State's Kelsey Mitchell and Ameryst Alston

They want to put up shots and Mitchell and Alston are going to put up most of them, 53 percent so far.

"The only thing I would ask is if somebody else had a better shot, or you could have got a better shot, that you take that," McGuff said. "That's the area that our whole team has grown. So Kelsey and [Ameryst] within that, the point is if Kelsey comes down and takes a 3, but if she would have drove it, she would have got all the way to the basket, well, I would want her to do that. Those are the areas that we've tried to get better at as a team and emphasize.

"The other thing is I don't want them thinking too much about 'Should I shoot this, should I not shoot this?' If those guys start thinking too much, it doesn't allow them to be the special players that they are."

Former Ohio State coach Jim Foster recruited Alston, but McGuff inherited her and she gave him someone around whom to build. Even a losing 2013-14 season was buoyed at the end when the Buckeyes upset top seed Penn State in the Big Ten tournament behind her 33 points. Mitchell is the program-defining, in-state recruit he needed to move forward.

Mixing those two wasn't guaranteed to work. Putting two scorers on the court together, one recruited by another coaching staff and the other accompanied by great fanfare, could have led to a war of egos, or less dramatically, two players with good intentions getting in the way of each other.

Instead, young and old, fast and slow seem to complement each other rather well.

"I know me as an individual, being as young as I am, I know my maturity level is not where it needs to be here at the college level," Mitchell said. "For me to learn from somebody like Am, who's actually been doing this a while? Shoot, why not? I think it works just fine."

It's a partnership that can win a lot of games. At times literally.