Photo by Jim Davidson for theOzone.net
INDIANAPOLIS — Make room in the trophy case because the Ohio State women’s basketball team is the Big Ten Tournament champion — again.
After a Feb. 6 loss to Northwestern at the Schottenstein Center, OSU was 4-6 in Big Ten conference play, and fading quickly.
Fast-forward to 3:30 p.m. Sunday.
OSU (22-9), the Big Ten Tournament’s No. 5-seeded team, was playing No. 2-seeded Penn State (24-9) at Conseco Fieldhouse in the Big Ten Tournament championship game.
Fast-forward again to about 5:25 p.m.
At that moment, the Buckeyes were hoisting the Big Ten Championship trophy above their heads at midcourt as confetti showered over them.
“This is the fruition of a lot of work,” OSU coach Jim Foster said during the trophy presentation. “Go Bucks.”
The title is the third consecutive for the Buckeyes and the fourth in program history.
The team enjoyed offensive outbursts from senior center Jantel Lavender and junior guard Samantha Prahalis, who each scored a game-high 23 points. Lavender, Prahalis and sophomore guard Tayler Hill were named to the Big Ten All-Tournament team. Lavender was also named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
The Buckeyes’ heroes of the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds were senior forward Brittany Johnson and Lavender, respectively, and it appeared that Prahalis played the role of most valuable Buckeye in the first half against Penn State.
Penn State led, 12-8, at the first media timeout, thanks to a balanced offensive attack led by junior guard Zhaque Gray.
Prahalis had an early answer for Gray and the Lady Lions, scoring six points in the first half during a 13-4 run that put OSU ahead, 21-12, with just more than 11 minutes until halftime.
The teams went on to match each other nearly bucket for bucket, for much of the first half. Prahalis continued to drive the Buckeyes’ offense, accumulating 14 points and three assists. Lavender added nine points of her own as OSU took a 44-39 lead to finish the half.
Eight points from Gray and 12 from Penn State sophomore guard Alex Bentley meant the Big Ten title was far from decided.
But the Buckeyes were within 20 minutes of accomplishing a goal that had seemed unattainable in early February.
A determined Lavender opened up a personal 6-0 run to extend the Buckeyes’ lead. Then, a steal and some quick passing led to an easy Lavender layup to extend the lead to 59-46.
OSU supporters cheered, and Lavender signaled to the fans for even more noise as she ran back on defense.
Hill drilled a step-back jumper to increase the Buckeyes’ advantage to 63-49 with less than 13 minutes remaining.
OSU was on its way.
Penn State sophomore forward Mia Nickson scored 15 points, with 11 coming in the second half.
But it wasn’t enough to help the Lady Lions claw back into the contest. Bentley misfired on numerous 3-point attempts as OSU’s lead grew.
Johnson missed a 15-foot jumper after nearly letting the shot clock expire, and Lavender hauled in the offensive rebound with 2:12 remaining in the contest. The Buckeyes retained possession for the remainder of the game, coasting to an 84-70 win.
With the win, the Buckeyes clinched the Big Ten’s automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament. The Buckeyes now await the announcement of their seeding and opponent.
They will represent the conference in the NCAA Tournament for the ninth consecutive year.