HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. (AP) As Lexie Brown stepped to the foul line in the closing seconds with No. 4 Maryland clinging to a one-point lead, one thought crossed her mind.
”Don’t miss,” she said.
She made her free throws. A desperation heave by Ohio State hit the rim, and just like that, the celebration started.
Brown scored 19 points, and Maryland beat the Buckeyes 77-74 Sunday night to capture the Big Ten tournament title and cap a perfect run through the conference.
The Terrapins (30-2) will enter the NCAA Tournament with 24 straight wins and their eyes locked on the biggest prize of all after reaching the Final Four last season.
”We’re happy, we’re going to ride it out for a day or two, then lock back in,” Shatori Walker-Kimbrough said. ”We’re not done yet. Two goals down, we still got one more to go.”
They made a seamless transition to the Big Ten after 37 years in the ACC, going 18-0 in conference play. No other Maryland basketball team – men’s or women’s – had gone unbeaten in league competition, and the 24 consecutive wins are a school record for a single season.
But they sure got all they could handle in this one, hanging on after Ohio State (23-10) cut a 15-point lead to one.
Maryland was leading by four when Cait Craft raced back on defense to strip Maryland’s Shatori Walker-Kimbrough as she went for a layup following a turnover by Ohio State’s Kelsey Mitchell. Craft then nailed a 3 with a minute left to make it 75-74, but the Terrapins hung on.
Mitchell, who had 31 points, got called for traveling with 7 seconds left, and Brown hit two free throws to make it a three-point game.
”I didn’t want to let my team down so I locked in and knocked those two free throws down,” Brown said.
Mitchell caught the inbounds and raced up the right side, but her heave from just inside the half-court line hit the back of the rim, preserving the win for Maryland and setting off a lengthy celebration.
Brown, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, had six assists. Walker-Kimbrough added 13 points and six rebounds. Laurin Mincy scored 12, and Malina Howard chipped in with 12 points and 12 rebounds.
Despite Mitchell’s big scoring game, Ohio State came up short going for its fifth Big Ten tournament title. Alexa Hart finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds, but the Buckeyes’ six-game win streak came to an end.
”My team grew tremendously from the standpoint of us handling adversity, all the things we went through,” Mitchell said. ”Coming here to do something like this with a great team is all you can ask for.”
A 17-3 run by Maryland turned a one-point lead late in the first half into a 50-35 advantage in the second on Walker-Kimbrough’s 3.
Ohio State responded with a 17-4 run to pull to 56-54 on Mitchell’s 3 midway through the half.
Hart’s layup pulled Ohio State within one – 61-60 – with 6:44 remaining. It remained tight until the rest of the way, but Maryland hung on.
”They don’t get rattled,” Maryland coach Brenda Frese said about her team. ”They don’t get too high or too low. It’s a game of runs, they understand it. They connect. They lock into their defense and rebounding and whatever we need to have to be successful.”
Maryland won a school-record 24 straight from the end of the 2005-06 and beginning of the 2006-07 seasons, capturing the NCAA championship along the way.
Maryland: The Terrapins now have three conference tournament titles in 13 seasons under coach Brenda Frese. They also won the ACC in 2009 and 2012.
Ohio State: This was the Buckeyes’ eighth appearance in the Big Ten tournament finals.