KNOXVILLE — Tennessee women's basketball coach Kellie Harper can look back at the first month of this season knowing her players, win or lose, have faced a schedule that resembled March more than November.
She also knows it's up to the Lady Volunteers to make sure they emerge from the rugged run of opponents a better, more confident team.
Win or lose.
Ohio State's Cotie McMahon scored 19 points and Rebeka Mikulasikova added 18 for the 16th-ranked Buckeyes as they blasted No. 20 Tennessee 78-58 on Sunday in the Jimmy V Women's Classic.
McMahon scored all of her points in the first half, and the Buckeyes (6-1) were rarely threatened in building a 45-28 lead at the break. The lead first reached 20 when Celeste Taylor hit a jumper near the 3-minute mark of the third quarter, and Tennessee (4-4) never mounted a serious threat in the fourth quarter.
The Lady Vols have played five ranked teams in their first eight games, and they have played the past six of those contests without senior star Rickea Jackson, who was averaging 22 points before being sidelined with an injury. The setback against the Buckeyes was the most lopsided of the losses for Tennessee, which has also fallen 92-91 to No. 18 Florida State, 71-57 to No. 21 Indiana and 74-69 to No. 18 Notre Dame, while the Lady Vols beat No. 22 Oklahoma 76-73.
"It's been tough. It's been really hard," Harper said, according to postgame quotes posted on the team's website. "That's where our players have got to be better. I told them, 'If we lose, we better be better off for it; you better learn from it, because otherwise why did we lose?'"
None of the next four opponents on Tennessee's schedule — a stretch that will be followed by the beginning of Southeastern Conference play — are currently ranked, but the Lady Vols have already endured the equivalent of an NCAA tourney run.
"I'm not sure where we are exactly," Harper said. "That's obviously, the big question, the big challenge that we have in front of us. Every year, every team is different. We have consistently thrown tough schedules at our players and have consistently played tough teams. I don't know if anyone else has done what we've done in our schedule, but every year is different.
"Last year, our team handled it. They handled it, they recovered, and it made them better. We will see what this team does; it's a different team. That is going to be a challenge for them, a challenge that they can absolutely handle. They can. I believe in them, and I know they can do that, but that's beyond me. That is something that they have to internalize and something that they have to do on the court."
Destinee Wells led Tennessee with 11 points off the bench, and Sara Puckett scored 10 with six rebounds. Wells also had three assists, as did Jillian Hollingshead, whose seven rebounds were a team high.
For the Buckeyes, Taylor scored 15 points and Jacy Sheldon contributed 13 points, seven rebounds, six assists and four steals. Taylor Thierry, their fifth starter, scored nine points.
Ohio State had leads of 9-2 and 20-7 in the first quarter before the Lady Vols shut them down for the final 3:58 of the quarter, drawing within 20-15.
Tess Darby's 3-pointer drew the Lady Vols to within 24-20, but McMahon came right back with a 3 for Ohio State, and the Buckeyes led by at least seven for the remainder of the half.
The game was one of three in the Jimmy V Women's Classic on Sunday. In the other two, No. 10 Texas defeated No. 11 Connecticut 80-68 and No. 1 South Carolina defeated Duke 77-61.
Tennessee returns to the court Wednesday to face Middle Tennessee State in Huntsville, Alabama. The Lady Vols have just three more games in December after that, with back-to-back home dates against Eastern Kentucky next Sunday and Wofford on Dec. 19 before visiting Liberty on New Year's Eve.
Their SEC opener is Jan. 4 at Auburn.