Buffalo entered its first NCAA Tournament appearance with no jitters essentially on Ohio State’s home court, taking an early lead on the third-seeded Buckeyes.
But, the speed of the 25-7 Buckeyes on both ends of the floor quickly spoiled the hopes of the 20-14 Bulls, as Ohio State won 88-69 in Columbus, all without the help of Ameryst Alston.
The Buckeyes will now face West Virginia, a 74-65 winner over Princeton, Sunday.
Alston, recovering from a sprained right wrist, will look to return Sunday.
Buffalo lead through the first five minutes from tip before Asia Doss hit back-to-back 3-pointers to give the Buckeyes their first lead, 14-11. Ohio State opened the game up with a 19-1 run from the 11-11 point to end the first quarter, taking a 30-12 lead.
"That was a reflection of overall our intensity and our focus being at a higher level today," said Ohio State head coach Kevin McGuff. "That looked a little more reminiscent of what we've done throughout the season, not necessarily the last two weeks. That's the thing I enjoyed most, it felt like and looked like we were back to playing more like the team we're capable of being."
Kelsey Mitchell followed Doss’ hot hand, getting Ohio State jiving on offense. Previously 0-7, Mitchell hit her first shot, a 3 from the top of the arc to open the floodgates. She went on an 8-0 run herself within Ohio State’s first quarter run.
"Kelsey's usually going to make a run at some point, and that was a really special one there at the end of the first quarter," McGuff said.
With the absence of Alston, Doss and Shayla Cooper's contributions offensively were key. Doss finished with 16 points and Cooper added 17. Mitchell led all scorers with 27.
"That's what I really liked about today, she (Doss) didn't come out and say, (Alston) isn't there so I have to come out and do a bunch of this or that. She just let the game come to her and everything she got was within the flow of the game," McGuff said. "I think that's why the results were so good for her.
"What I really like to see when we're in a rhythm like that is to keep the pace going because it puts a lot of pressure on the defense to get back and stop," he continued.
However, Buffalo, once one of the nation’s top defenses, couldn’t handle one of the nation’s quickest offenses, especially once Mitchell got going. That translated over to Buffalo’s offense, the Bills seeming rushed, thus struggling to execute.
The Bills recorded 11 first-half turnovers compared to Ohio State’s seven, and the Buckeyes tallied 17 points off those turnovers. The Buckeyes were clearly setting the pace on both ends of the floor.
"At one point we had our foot on the peddle too much, we were playing to their pace and that showed," said junior guard Joanna Smith. "We didn't want to play at their pace, and for a couple of minutes in the first and second quarter, that's what we did, and that's when they were able to get the lead."
Mitchell’s mid-range jumper put the Buckeyes up 20 just before the half. A few possessions later, Doss found Makayla Waterman for a lay-in under the basket, putting Ohio State up 48-23 in the expiring seconds of the first half.
Buffalo shot just 24 percent on 8-of-33 from the floor in the firs half compared to Ohio State's was 54 percent on 19-of-25 from the floor. The Bulls were able to find much more of a rhythm offensively in the second half once they settled more into the game.
"There's something about knowing that you have been here before and you play differently," said Buffalo head coach Felisha Legette-Jack. "They (Ohio State) have a lot of history, and winning to be is about knowing you've been there before. I couldn't demonstrate to them what it takes to know that you've been there to go through that.
"You can be as talented as you want, but as long as your kids haven't been on the stage, we had to go through that," Legette-Jack continued. "I'm glad we went through with it together."
Buffalo was scoreless for the first 4 minutes of the third quarter while Ohio State built a 30-point lead and continued to press. Buffalo scored its first points of the quarter at the 5:41 mark on a Joanna Smith layup, and Mariah Suchan followed it up with an "and-one" on the following possession to put the score at 57-28.
Smith brought the Bills within 64-39 with a four-point play. Smith recorded eight points in the final two minutes to pull Buffalo within 70-44 going into the final quarter of play. Smith finished with 23 points for Buffalo, while Courtney Wilkins added 14 off the bench.
Buffalo scored 21 points in the third quarter compared to 23 in the entire first half. The Bulls continued to drive and get to the rim late, getting to the free-throw line two consecutive times to put the score at 86-65 with just under three minutes to play.
One thing was for certain, Buffalo may have been down, but they continued to fight and enjoy the experience.
"This young team decided that they're going to make their own story, and they're going to write their own ending," Legette-Jack said. "I know that we have people that are going to compete in the future, they just had to get here, they had to see it, they had to smell it and touch it. And now that we've done that, we're on our way."