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Defense key to Buckeyes’ success heading into Sweet 16

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Coach Jim Foster usually attributed his team’s struggles during conference play to a lack of commitment to defense.

Now, in the midst of an impressive 11-game winning streak and an upcoming game against top-seeded Tennessee in the Sweet 16, his team’s commitment to its play on the defensive end has been as key a factor as any.

“I think we realize … how good we can be if we play (defense) really well, and then that opens up everything else,” guard Samantha Prahalis said after OSU’s second-round win against fifth-seeded Georgia Tech on Monday.

Heading into that game, the Buckeyes were allowing opponents to shoot just 37.8 percent from the floor. During the rough patch of the season where the team lost nine of 15 games, its defense was allowing teams to shoot at a 44.7 percent clip in the losses.

In contrast, OSU is shooting 45.6 percent from the field — good for 11th in the country. Its shooting numbers are thanks largely in part to Jantel Lavender, who accounted for 28.8 percent of her team’s field goal attempts while shooting 54.4 percent before Monday’s tournament win.

The lowest point of the team’s season came Feb. 6, when the team suffered a 74-68 loss to conference foe Northwestern. It was the team’s ninth loss in 15 contests, and the psychological low point for Foster and his players.

After that game, Foster mentioned how disappointed he was in his team’s lack of will, especially defensively.

“We let them do what they wanted to do and needed to do, and we didn’t fight through it,” he said. “We aren’t a team that fights through adversity, and that’s how you win games.

“Basketball is a game of stops. … In all of these games, there is a point where we just don’t get stops.”

He went on to say that although his team was good offensively, it would not turn things around until it did a better job of guarding opponents.

And now it has.

During its current 11-game winning streak, OSU has clamped down defensively by only allowing opponents to shoot 36.8 percent — a nearly 8 percent decrease from its nine losses between Dec. 11 and Feb. 6.

The team’s improved defense has allowed it to pick back up where it left off early in the season when it was ranked as high as No. 6 nationally.

Accompanying the 11-game winning streak is a new type of self-confidence that was absent in conference play.

“Our confidence level kind of boosted when we won our seventh game, eighth game, ninth, 10th,” Lavender said after her team’s first-round win against Central Florida on Saturday. “We know what we’re capable of doing. We realize who we are now, and everyone’s playing their role and they’re playing their role well.”

The Buckeyes will play the Lady Volunteers, led by heralded coach Pat Summitt, in the Sweet 16 at noon Saturday in Dayton, Ohio.

Tennessee shoots 47 percent from the floor, good for sixth in the country, and likely is the toughest team the Buckeyes have faced since squaring off against UConn, losing, 81-50, on Dec. 19 in the midst of the Huskies’ all-time record winning streak of 90.

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