COLUMBUS, Ohio — Cotie McMahon couldn't wait to get to Ohio State, so much so that she graduated from high school early so she could acclimate to college life quickly.
That precociousness also tested McMahon's patience. The talented 6-foot forward watched Ohio State's run to the Sweet 16 on television a year ago.
Her viewpoint will be different Saturday when the third-seeded Buckeyes (25-7) face 14th seed James Madison (26-7) in the opening round. Sixth-seeded North Carolina (21-10) takes on 11th-seeded St. John's (23-8) in the other game at the Schottenstein Center.
McMahon is a vital cog on a team that believes two-plus months excelling in arguably the nation's best conference in the Big Ten has prepared it for what Ohio State hopes is a long stay in the tournament.
“This team has got a certain amount of grit to them,” coach Kevin McGruff said. “You know, we’ve been in some tough situations, but we always keep fighting and figure out a way to come back and give ourselves a chance to win. I like the determination, the togetherness, and just kind of the cohesion of this group.”
That cohesion was on full display in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals, when the Buckeyes rallied from 24 down to upset top-seeded Indiana. McMahon was right in the middle of things, scoring 12 points to go with 14 rebounds and three steals and playing all 40 minutes.
Not bad for a player who believes she was “passive” when she arrived on campus in January 2022.
Funny, she's never looked that way to her coaches or her teammates.
“Some people play hard in the games, but it’s another thing — the reason why she’s made the progress she’s made is how hard she practices,” McGruff said. “She really competes and plays hard every single day in practice, and that’s sort of rare for a freshman.”
Even if at this point McGruff is a freshman in name only, consider she's second on the team in scoring, rebounds, assists and assists and kept the Buckeyes steady after losing senior point guard Jacy Sheldon for a large chunk of the season due to a lower-leg injury.
“I mean, it’s kind of crazy to think that she’s only a freshman,” Ohio State point guard Taylor Mikesell said. “She’s going to be sitting up here three years from now, and you’re going to be asking her all the questions about where she was three years ago. So I’m excited to come back three years from now and see where she’s at.”
First things first, though. Ohio State believes its late-season wobble — a 2-5 stretch following a 19-0 start — is firmly in its rearview mirror. And unlike last season, when they had to go into a hostile environment against LSU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to reach the Sweet 16, this time they're at home, where they went 11-4 this season, including 6-0 against nonconference opponents.
RED STORM RISING
St. John's (23-8) will likely be running on adrenaline when it tries to upset the Tar Heels. Jayla Everett extended the Red Storm's season with a last-second runner to beat Purdue on Thursday.
Everett's roller-coaster game included a brief spell on the bench after getting a technical foul earlier in the fourth quarter. She atoned by driving to her right and flipping in a shot that gave the Red Storm their first NCAA Tournament win since 2014.
“I feel like the ref made the right call honestly,” Everett said. “I’ve got to learn to control my emotions at times.”
North Carolina is hoping for a return trip to the Sweet 16 after getting to the regional semifinals a year ago. The Tar Heels saw their stock drop following a 4-4 finish after a 17-6 start, a tumble that sent them on the road for the tournament's opening weekend.
Last year, traveling wasn't an issue: North Carolina topped host Arizona to reach the Sweet 16. The Tar Heels will try to do the same, starting with a St. John's team whose resume includes a win at Connecticut.