Lady Vols must try to slow OSU's Mitchell -- but most have failed

Mitchell scores 45 in OSU win (3:12)

Ohio State guard Kelsey Mitchell talks about her stellar performance in the Buckeyes' 88-81 win over West Virginia. (3:12)

With one notable exception, Ohio State guard Kelsey Mitchell has burned everybody this season. She has nailed 3-pointers from all over the court. She has zoomed, stutter-stepped and spun her way to the rim. She has hit pull-up jumpers and come off screens and scored however many ways you can think of to score. She has made foes practically weep while she fills up the basket from the free throw line. She's a holy terror.

Your mission, Tennessee? Keep Mitchell from killing you. That won't guarantee the No. 7 seed Lady Vols a victory when they meet Mitchell's third-seeded Buckeyes on Friday in the Sioux Falls regional semifinals (ESPN2, 9:30 p.m. ET). Ohio State does have other weapons, and they've all done their damage throughout this season, too, for a team that averages 86.8 points per game.

Yet it's Mitchell who haunts defenders' dreams. She is a 5-foot-8 left-handed scoring machine who averages 26.3 points per game and has topped 40 in three of her last five games.

UConn held her to eight points on 2-for-14 shooting back in November. In general, it is best not to use any qualifiers in regard to the Huskies' defense, because it really is that great. That said, it was just the second game of the season, and the Buckeyes had played at No. 2 South Carolina just three days before, when Mitchell scored 36.

At any rate, the game against the Huskies is the only one in which Mitchell has been held below double figures in scoring this season. She led the nation in scoring (24.9 PPG) as a freshman last season, and a "down" game for her is when she scores fewer than 20. Other than against UConn, her low this season was 16, which she did three times.

And a mammoth game for her is epic, such as last Sunday's 45-point performance in an 88-81 victory over No. 6 seed West Virginia.

"Our main focus is pushing the ball as fast as possible," Mitchell said after defeating the Mountaineers. "My team helped me maintain the energy and focus to keep the ball in my hands. I think it helps our team when I'm driving right at people."

Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff agreed: "She's very difficult to guard. She handles the ball and has speed and quickness like nobody else."

It was the fourth-highest point total for an NCAA tournament game (and more than five teams scored in this tournament), but the most by a true guard. Drake's Lorri Bauman (50 points) was a 6-3 forward, Texas Tech's 6-foot Sheryl Swoopes (47) a 6-foot forward/guard, and Stanford's Jayne Appel (46) a 6-4 center.

Besides Mitchell, the other pure guards shorter than 6 feet tall to be in the "40 club" for an NCAA tournament game are Missouri State's Jackie Stiles (41 in 2001) and Stanford's Candice Wiggins (41 in 2008).

"You have to maybe try to pick her up early, and get her to turn a couple of times," Tennessee guard Andraya Carter said of trying to guard Mitchell. "When she's got a straight line, it's over. It's going to be a foul or points on the board; that's just the player she is. You try to cut her off, make her change directions, deny her. You have to try everything."

Diamond DeShields, who is the top scorer (14.2 PPG) for a Tennessee team that averages 65.2 points per game, knows full well that Mitchell and the Buckeyes want a very fast pace. So the Lady Vols will have to try to counter that, too.

"Hopefully, we'll be able to give them a defensive look that they haven't quite seen before," DeShields said. "We rely a lot on our defense, which I think has been getting better game by game. But it's going to be a huge challenge for us, because they like to speed the game up."

"You have to maybe try to pick her up early, and get her to turn a couple of times. When she's got a straight line, it's over. It's going to be a foul or points on the board; that's just the player she is." Tennessee's Andraya Carter on guarding Kelsey Mitchell

Even though her opponents approach every game with Ohio State as a mission to slow down Mitchell, few are able to do it. Part of it, of course, is the versatility of her scoring. This season, she has 124 3-pointers, and shoots 40.3 percent from long range. She's at 50.8 percent on 2-pointers, and 84.6 percent from the foul line.

And while you can try to keep the ball out of Mitchell's hands, the fact that Ohio State senior guard Ameryst Alston is back from a wrist injury she suffered during the Big Ten tournament makes that strategy harder, too.

"You won't see it all show up on the stat line, but her presence was really good on the court," McGuff said of Alston after the win over West Virginia. "She did a fantastic job. I don't know if we win if we don't have her in there."

It remains to be seen if Alston is closer to 100 percent physically for Friday. But she has proven over the course of her career that she can put up big numbers -- she's averaging 18.2 PPG -- and she works well with Mitchell in the backcourt.

Against Illinois on Feb. 21, for instance, Mitchell (35) and Alston (39) combined for 74 of the Buckeyes' points in a 117-74 victory.

The Buckeyes' interior game, when it's clicking, can be very good, too. Forwards Shayla Cooper (13.5 PPG) and Alexa Hart (11.1 PPG) shoot 53 and 62.8 percent from the field, respectively. The past two seasons, the Buckeyes are 36-4 when they outscore their opponents in the paint. Having one extremely dangerous scorer in Mitchell can make every potential scorer around her more effective.

But for all their trials and travails this season, one thing the Lady Vols have shown is their ability to defend. Except when they don't. Suffice to say, if you've followed women's basketball at all this season, you know how all over the map Tennessee has been.

However, the Lady Vols have been a much better team their last six games or so. And if you were looking for their most consistent identity throughout the season when they've been good, it has been on defense.

Tennessee has held opponents to 58.1 points per game, and a 36.7 shooting percentage from the field. Just three teams have topped the 70-point mark against the Lady Vols this season: Florida (74), Notre Dame (79) and Texas A&M (76). So Friday, something will have to be pretty significantly worse than its average: Tennessee's defense or Ohio State's offense.

In their second-round 75-64 upset of No. 2 seed Arizona State, the Lady Vols' length, quickness, athleticism and positioning gave the Sun Devils some difficulties. But Arizona State does not have a scorer in the same realm as Mitchell.

Few teams do. The Lady Vols had their challenging guards to face in the SEC -- such as Texas A&M's Courtney Walker, Kentucky's Makayla Epps and South Carolina's Tiffany Mitchell -- but Kelsey Mitchell is among the most elite scorer any team will ever face in the college game.

Mitchell did miss 20 shots -- including 12 in a row -- against West Virginia, going 11 of 31 from the field. That's at the far end of high-volume shooting, but it worked for the victory. McGuff acknowledged that she was a bit tired near the end.

"But we got some really big offensive rebounds off of misses," said McGuff, who is trying to guide Ohio State to its first Elite Eight since 1993, "and those extra possessions were huge."

So that is a challenge laid out for the Lady Vols: Can they wear down Mitchell enough for it to be effective? Because West Virginia didn't win despite tiring her. And if the Lady Vols do force a lot of missed shots from Mitchell, can they also keep her off the foul line and prevent a lot of offensive rebounds?

For what it's worth, the Lady Vols know what they're facing; the Tennessee players seemed very aware of Mitchell and how she plays. By contrast, Mitchell that acknowledged prior to getting her coaches' scouting report, she really didn't know anything about how Tennessee was playing this year, just that the Lady Vols were a traditionally great program.

But regardless of whom she faces, Mitchell will be trying to do the same things. And most of the time, she does them.