Just about everybody expected this to be a long season for Ohio State.
First-year coach Kevin McGuff is hopeful that the lessons learned — such as what was gleaned from a 74-54 loss to No. 9 Penn State on Sunday — may pay dividends down the road.
"That's where we're aspiring to go, hopefully sooner rather than later," McGuff said in comparing his team to the Nittany Lions. "The thing about it is, they're certainly better than we are and that was proved today. But I don't think the gap is that far."
The Buckeyes had few proven standouts when McGuff was hired last spring in the wake of Ohio State's firing of 10-year coach Jim Foster. Foster's teams always were in the thick of contention in the Big Ten and annually piled up 20 wins, but usually wilted in the NCAA tournament.
The Buckeyes (14-13, 4-7 Big Ten) have taken their lumps. But there will be brighter days ahead.
McGuff brought in two top transfers — Kianna Holland from Duke and Shayla Cooper from Georgetown — who will see their first playing time midway through next season. He also locked up a stellar recruiting class which should provide a boost immediately.
"I know they have some really, really good recruits coming in next year. I know they're going to be competitive. They're a competitive team in our conference right now," said Coquese Washington, the seventh year coach at Penn State (18-5, 9-2).
Washington, who was with McGuff on the same Notre Dame staff under coach Muffet McGraw, suffered through some long nights when she first took over in Happy Valley. She knows that it takes time to turn a program around.
"I certainly remember my first year (2007-08) in the conference," she said. "We finished last. We lost the last 12 games of the season. We were competitive and we fought and a lot of them were close games, but it just takes time to develop the style and culture that you want to play.
"Kevin's won every place he's been. They're winning now. They're above .500. I'm not worried about Ohio State, I'll just say that. I'm not losing hairs about how good Ohio State is going to be and how quickly because I know they're going to be really good really quickly."
Raven Ferguson and Ameryst Alston each scored 16 points for the Buckeyes, who have lost six of eight. Alston, fourth in the Big Ten in scoring at 17.4 points a game, was held out of the starting lineup after she showed up late for the morning shootaround, held during a snow squall.
Maggie Lucas scored 23 points, including 12 during a decisive 21-3 run at the end of the first half and start of the second, to help the Nittany Lions take command. Talia East and Dara Taylor each added 12 points.
Ahead by two points at the half after taking a 12-3 run into the break, Penn State took control early in the second half.
"The first half is just a great example of when we're clicking and we're all together, we can play with anybody," said Buckeyes guard Amy Scullion. "What's most frustrating about this game is that when we play well we can play with the best of them. And when we don't, we can get beat by anybody."
Taylor tossed in a 3 from the left baseline on the first possession and, after three missed shots and a turnover by Ohio State, Lucas hit a perimeter jumper for a 43-36 lead. Lucas then followed two more Ohio State misses with baskets — one a step-back 15-footer and the other a layup in transition — to make it nine straight points and push the lead to 11.
Scoreless for the first 4:27 of the half, the Buckeyes picked up the next five points but couldn't solve Penn State's zone defense. Two Lucas free throws, a fast-break layup by Edwards, Peyton Whitted's follow of her own miss and Lucas' assist pass to Taylor for a layup gave the Lions a 59-44 lead with just over 8 minutes left.
The outcome was never in doubt again.
"You miss some shots and then you turn it over and now you're playing transition with them scoring," McGuff said. "That whole thing just kind of wore on us and wore on our confidence."
Follow Rusty Miller on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/RustyMillerAP