(AP) – Led by the NCAA scoring leader, Ohio State is back in the NCAA Tournament.
Freshman star Kelsey Mitchell and the fifth-seeded Buckeyes take on 12th-seeded James Madison in the first round of the Greensboro Region on Saturday.
Despite being decimated by injuries, Ohio State (23-10) returns to the tournament for the first time since 2012. The Buckeyes have used nine players all season – eight since mid-January – and have been forced to start three freshman.
Mitchell, however, hardly looks like a freshman and has paced the Buckeyes’ 80.7 scoring attack – the nation’s fifth-best offense.
She averages 25.0 points and has made at least one 3-pointer in all 33 games, one shy of the NCAA single-season record. Mitchell leads the nation with 122 3-pointers and has made at least three in each of the last 10 games.
Paired with junior Ameryst Alston (19.3 points per game), the duo make up the highest-scoring tandem in the country.
”In my opinion, we have the best backcourt in the country,” coach Kevin McGuff said.
The Buckeyes lost to fourth-ranked Maryland 77-74 in the Big Ten title game, just their third defeat in the last 15 contests.
”Everybody was excited but realized that there was a lot more that we want to do,” said guard Cait Craft, whose brother Aaron played for the Ohio State men’s basketball team from 2010-14. ”That doesn’t have to be the highest point that we reach this season.”
James Madison (29-3) is making its fourth NCAA Tournament appearance in the last six years. As an 11 seed last season, the Dukes upset Gonzaga for their first tournament win since 1991.
"The gut and grit these kids have exemplified for 32 games, I’m very proud of them, they’ve deserved everything that they’ve gotten," coach Kenny Brooks said after James Madison defeated Hofstra 62-56 in the Colonial Athletic Association championship game.
"We entered the season with a lot of doubts and not a whole lot of expectations. I think people thought we would be good, but never in a million years think we would be 29-3 as we head into the tournament."
The Dukes, winners of 20 of 21, are led by Precious Hall and Lauren Okafor.
Hall averages 20.5 points and her 3.0 made 3-pointers a game is ninth-best in the country. Okafor is averaging 12.5 points and a team-high 9.8 rebounds.
James Madison’s 80-64 victory over Pittsburgh on Nov. 23 is a sign that the Dukes are capable of winning this weekend. Ohio State lost at home to the Panthers 78-74 on Dec. 3.
The Buckeyes, however, are 5-0 all-time against James Madison, last meeting in 2001.
The winner of this matchup faces fourth-seeded North Carolina or No. 13 seed Liberty on Monday.