The Ohio Northern women’s basketball team has lost three games this season. They have won 20. For most teams, this would be a cause to celebrate. There would be high-fives and pats on the back and a sense of satisfaction.
For ONU, however, things are different.
After all, this is a team that won their first 30 games last season. They have national championship aspirations, ranked seventh in the nation in the d3hoops.com preseason poll. Now they must get back on track after suffering their third loss of the season to John Carroll (6-17, 4-12 OAC) on Saturday.
ONU dropped to 21st in this week’s d3hoops.com Top 25 poll, their lowest ranking since the 2016-17 preseason poll. The team’s second loss this season, at Capital (12-11, 8-8) on Jan. 27, was their first OAC regular season loss in over two years.
In between the blowout wins (Northern has won 12 games by 20 points or more), there have been uncharacteristic hiccups.
Why has ONU stumbled against John Carroll (seventh in the OAC), Capital (fifth in the OAC) and local rival Bluffton? When looking at the box scores, one thing stands out: turnovers.
In ONU’s three losses this season, they have averaged nearly 21 turnovers per game. This is a drastically higher number than their season average of 13 per game, which leads the OAC.
Northern had 22 turnovers on Saturday against John Carroll. ONU head coach Michele Durand said that JCU’s full-court ball pressure frustrated Northern’s guards, forcing seniors Lindsey Black and Courtney Cramer into season-high turnover totals (Black had five, Cramer had four).
In the team’s first loss of the season, against Bluffton on opening night, Ohio Northern ran into similar full-court pressure and turned it over 23 times. That could be attributed to inexperience, however, as Black was starting her first game in over two years and several other players were adapting to filling bigger roles as ball handlers early on in the season.
Against Capital, Ohio Northern had 17 turnovers. And although ONU has won four games with 17 or more turnovers this season, that number likely did not help in such a close game (ONU trailed Capital by four with less than two minutes to go).
That being said, there really isn’t a magic number for the amount of turnovers that Northern must stay under to win. They are 4-3 in games with 17 turnovers or more. However, they are 0-2 (as one might expect) in games with 20 turnovers or more.
Why has ONU had occasional turnover problems this season?
For starters, ONU does not run a pressure-oriented defense themselves. They run a pack-line defense, which emphasizes gap help over ball pressure. Because of this, Durand said that they rarely face full-court pressure in practice, which could attribute to their struggles in games.
Durand also mentioned that if she could do it over again, she would have substituted differently on Saturday, as she would have put two point guards in the game to help stymie JCU’s backcourt pressure. But Durand also noted that some of Saturday’s performance can be attributed to simply having a bad day, which John Carroll capitalized on by shooting 49 percent from the field — eight percent above their season average.
“Sometimes you just have bad games,” Durand said. “And it wasn’t a good time for it Saturday, obviously.”
In Ohio Northern’s three losses, the turnover issue has also led to bigger problems.
Northern has given up 73 points per game in their losses, which is 23 more points than the Polar Bears give up on an average night. Capital scored 84 points on Northern in late January, which is the most points that an ONU team has given up in a game since 2013. John Carroll scored 68 points on Saturday, which is six points above their season average.
In many cases, ONU’s turnovers have led to scoring opportunities for their opponents on the other end, which Durand believes is why they have surrendered so many points in their losses.
“I think probably the reason we weren’t as good defensively is we weren’t very good offensively. And usually it works the other way. Usually when our defense is pretty good, we can get going,” Durand said of Saturday’s performance. “We had five possessions to start the game where we had looks right at the basket that we just missed, and I think it affected us defensively. I think when you turn the ball over that many times, and then they’re in transition more, it puts your defense at a disadvantage.”
Aside from the turnovers and points allowed in ONU’s three losses, nothing else stands out statistically that separates those games from the team’s 20 wins.
During ONU’s losses, they have scored 69 points per game, which matches their season average. They have out-rebounded their opponents in all three games (sometimes by 20 rebounds or more), and their free throw shooting percentages have been above the season average in those games as well.
There are also no individual players who have failed to show up in the losses; given the team’s consistent scoring depth, it’s hard to predict who will need to score for ONU to win a game. Bullimore, the team’s leading scorer this year, has averaged 17 points per game during their losses (she averages 16 points per game on the season).
Going beyond the box score, however, it is easy to see that Northern is receiving every team’s best shot this season. As the three-time defending OAC champions, these Polar Bears now have a target on their back.
“Really, we’ve seen everybody’s best game,” Durand said. “I mean, maybe other than Heidelberg, and they have so many injuries right now that they weren’t capable of it. But everybody else is pretty capable and they’ve got some good athletes.”
From January: On the shoulders of giants, Bullimore makes history
Teams get excited to play Ohio Northern, especially following last year’s NCAA Tournament run and this year’s high preseason ranking. Northern secured their seventh straight 20-win season last week, and despite their two OAC losses, they are on pace for their fourth straight regular season OAC title. Simply put, they are the team to beat.
With a target on their backs, ONU will have to cut down on turnovers to avoid another upset loss and make a tournament run again this year.
Following the loss at John Carroll on Saturday, Northern will be forced to respond quickly this week, as they will face the second and third place teams in the OAC. They will host Otterbein (15-8, 11-5 OAC) on Wednesday night, then travel to Marietta (20-3, 13-3) on Saturday.
The Pioneers are currently one game behind ONU in the conference standings with two regular season games remaining. And because ONU already beat Marietta earlier this season, the Polar Bears have one hand on the OAC title heading into the final week. A win on Wednesday would clinch the title.
Even two days after the loss to JCU, one of Northern’s most surprising losses in recent memory, this gives Durand satisfaction. Turnover problems aside, the team’s situation at the moment is one that most programs across the country — and certainly others within the OAC — would covet.
“We’re up a game with two to play, so everything’s in our hands. Is that where I want to be? Yeah,” Durand said on Monday. “I mean, I would rather have secured it on Saturday. But if you’re telling me we can still win a championship, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”
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