How Ohio State's press 'paralyzed' UConn in women's March Madness

SEATTLE -- With UConn up two points when the second quarter of Saturday's regional semifinal at Climate Pledge Arena began, the Huskies had every reason to believe they would move on to the Elite Eight of the 2023 women's NCAA tournament.

Ten minutes of game time later, UConn was staring at one of its biggest halftime deficits ever in an NCAA tournament game. And when the Huskies couldn't turn things around after halftime, they lost 73-61 and suffered their earliest postseason exit since 2005, while Ohio State reached the Elite Eight for the first time since 1993, sending coach Kevin McGuff rushing across the court to celebrate with his family.

Ohio State accomplished the upset with a stifling full-court press that forced 18 first-half turnovers, 10 of them in the second quarter, which also featured a dose of foul trouble for Huskies forward Aaliyah Edwards, a scary moment for UConn's Lou Lopez Sénéchal and a star-making performance from Buckeyes freshman Cotie McMahon.

Here's how a meaningful quarter changed the course of recent NCAA women's basketball history and snapped the Huskies' run of 14 consecutive Final Four appearances.

Huskies can't handle the pressure

All week long, as Ohio State prepared for UConn, McGuff preached to his team the importance of pressure.

"You can't let UConn walk the ball up and execute in the half court for 40 minutes," he said. "They're going to pick you apart. They're going to backdoor you and they're going to get too many easy baskets. So I said, 'Hey, the key is going to be our ability to disrupt them.'"

"Nobody wanted the ball. Nobody really, you know, was trying to get open and break that press." UConn's Dorka Juhász

The Buckeyes' offense prevented that in the opening stages of the game. Ohio State missed six of its first seven shot attempts, making it difficult to apply the press. McGuff wasn't worried.

"I told them when I called a timeout," he said. "'We're getting good shots, we've just got to make them.' You could see the press was going to have a chance to be effective, but once again, you can't get in the press if you don't make shots.

"So once we started making some shots and were able to set the press, then I think we kind of got the game going the way we wanted it."

UConn struggled the first couple of times the Buckeyes pressed. Azzi Fudd turned over the ball in the backcourt only for Ohio State to give it right back, followed by a Nika Mühl giveaway. It wasn't until the second quarter that the press really gave the Huskies fits.

Amazingly, UConn didn't attempt a shot until the 5:27 mark of the second period, turning it over on eight consecutive possessions to start the quarter.

"They were all over the floor," Huskies center Dorka Juhász said. "Nobody wanted the ball. Nobody really, you know, was trying to get open and break that press."

Per ESPN Stats & Information, UConn finished the game with 16 turnovers on 32 plays when the Buckeyes pressed. The Huskies shot just 5-of-13 on plays where they managed not to turn it over against the press.

"That's the problem that we've had all year," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "When we're playing well, we just keep building on and building on and building on and building on. And then when things kind of go sideways for us, they kind of keep going sideways for a while.

"It wasn't like, 'I don't know what to do,' because 'I do know what to do, but I'm in a state of I'm paralyzed.' That's basically what it looked like."

Ohio State's pressure came as no surprise to UConn. The Buckeyes forced turnovers on 23% of opponent possessions this season, which ranks in the nation's top 35, per Sports-Reference.com. The Huskies had prepped for the press. It just took until after halftime -- when the Huskies turned it over just seven times -- for those lessons to sink in, Auriemma lamented postgame.

"We talked about that all week leading up to it," he said. "Against their pressure, we're either going to get layups and wide-open 3s -- which we did -- or if we turn it over, then we're going to get beat, and we did a little bit of both. Actually, did a little bit of one [beating the press] and a lot of the other [turnovers]."

Although Mühl had a game-high seven turnovers (UConn totaled 25), tying her career high, Auriemma didn't put the blame for the miscues on his point guard.

"Against teams like this, she needs help because any good defense isn't going to let her necessarily dominate the game," Auriemma said. "So she needs a little bit of help. And I would say tonight she got zero, if minimal, help during that second quarter. And the more that that happened, the more she started to press and the more she tried to take it upon herself to do it alone and the worse it got."

UConn's depth tested

All season long, injuries have been a storyline for UConn, starting with the loss of star guard Paige Bueckers to an ACL tear during an August pickup game. Despite the return of Fudd ahead of the Big East tournament, depth was an issue on Saturday in large part because of Edwards' foul trouble.

Edwards sat the final four minutes of the first quarter after picking up her second foul. Auriemma brought her back a minute and a half into the second period, only for her to draw a third foul less than three minutes later, sending her to the bench for the rest of the half.

By that point, the Huskies had already temporarily lost Sénéchal, who went down awkwardly midway through the second quarter and grabbed her right knee before hobbling to the bench. She was able to return after halftime and scored a game-high 25 points, but UConn played nearly the final six minutes of the first half without both of its leading scorers.

The three Huskies reserves who saw action, including a brief appearance for freshman Ayanna Patterson, combined for two points and five turnovers in 36 minutes. That proved especially costly when Edwards' minutes remained limited by foul trouble after halftime, though she never fouled out.

UConn outscored Ohio State by three during Edwards' 17 minutes of action. The Buckeyes were plus-15 with Edwards on the bench.

McMahon leads Buckeyes

Playing at less than 100%, Ohio State's leading scorer, Taylor Mikesell, didn't get on the scoreboard until the 7:32 mark of the third quarter. Yet the Buckeyes were still up double digits at that point largely thanks to McMahon. The freshman forward scored 18 of her team-high 23 points before halftime and outscored the Huskies 13-9 in the second quarter.

"When you're trying to guard two really good 3-point shooters like they have, the lane tends to get a little more wide-open and she took advantage of it," Auriemma said. "Other than their defense and our breakdowns, I thought she was the biggest factor in the game."

Young for her class, McMahon won't turn 19 until May. She displayed poise beyond her years on the Sweet 16 stage in front of a large crowd.

"The level that this game was played at and how she performed was awesome," teammate Jacy Sheldon said. "Like Coach says all the time, she's just scratching the surface of what she can do, but tonight she was outstanding."

Given McMahon has averaged 14.8 PPG this season, earning Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors, her performance hardly came out of nowhere -- aside, perhaps, from matching her career high with a pair of 3-pointers. Still, an effort like this in front of a national TV audience made this a coming-out party for one of the nation's most promising first-year players.

Besides the setting, the opponent made Saturday special for McMahon.

"It did feel like, I guess, a little bit of different energy coming into the game," she said. "Like we all mentioned, UConn is a great program. They're known for so many great accomplishments and stuff like that. So I feel like coming out and being able to play UConn and come out with the win, I feel like it's really cool."