During coach Jim Foster’s nine-year tenure at the helm of Ohio State’s women’s basketball team, he has led a consistent program. After all, the Buckeyes are one of eight teams in the country to win at least 20 games each season over that span.
But Foster has little to show for all that consistency.
OSU was eliminated from the NCAA Tournament in the Sweet 16 for the second time in three seasons on Saturday. It was the third time his Buckeyes have reached the regional semifinals, but they’ve never advanced further.
This year was another chance to put his stamp on the program and elevate it from good to elite. But having one of the nation’s best post players and point guards wasn’t enough to get to that level.
Last season, Foster’s Big Ten champions entered the tournament as a No. 2 seed and lost, 87-67, to No. 7 seed Mississippi State in the second round.
Expectations levied on the Buckeyes in November might have been unrealistic. Before they played their first game, they were ranked No. 7 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll.
In the second week of the season, OSU leapfrogged Pat Summitt’s Tennessee team in the rankings. Of course, it was the Lady Volunteers who ended the Buckeyes’ season, 85-75, at the Dayton Regional on Saturday.
During the heart of the Big Ten schedule, the team that was previously seen as top-10 caliber lost nine of 15 games and appeared to be on life support. Senior starting forward Sarah Schulze suffered a serious knee injury, causing her to miss a month, and the team took considerable time to recover.
Foster and his players knew it would take a serious run to make it into the big dance.
The Buckeyes rallied with six straight wins, including a one-point thriller against first-place Michigan State on the road. The team realized its potential that garnered its preseason ranking and extended its winning streak to 11 through the conference and NCAA tournaments.
“I thought this year’s seniors weathered the storm through the course of the year,” Foster said. “I think they did a great job of demanding that their young teammates play to a certain level and do things at a certain level and people took that to heart. So I think it’s a by-product of a team taking responsibility for their actions and having a high standard.”
To observers, the team was hard to figure out. At one point, it was losing to teams far less talented; then it beat top-tier Michigan State twice over a four-game span. Foster said this wasn’t his first unpredictable team.
“I have had (teams like this), not a lot,” he said before going to the Sweet 16. “But, I did have frames of reference that the players didn’t have.”
The difficulties the team went through midseason might have been what the team needed in order to realize that it couldn’t get by on talent alone.
“We don’t compete well when we get down,” senior center Jantel Lavender said after a Feb. 6 loss to Northwestern, a game which is considered the season’s low point. “Teams are just coming at us and we’re not responding.”
But the team did respond in the coming weeks, especially in the NCAA Tournament’s second round when a scrappy Georgia Tech team did everything it could to rattle the Buckeyes with physical play.
The same group in January might have crumbled from the opposition’s intensity. But March’s version fought through and won, 67-60, with the season on the line.
“I think we’re confident,” guard Samantha Prahalis said after the game. “I think we realize … how good we can be if we play (defense) really well, and then that opens up everything else.”
The team’s defense during its winning streak at the end of the season was markedly better than its 11-game winning streak during conference play. But the renewed sense of confidence wasn’t enough to advance past one of the nation’s elite and storied programs in Tennessee.
Foster said he understands that the successes and failures of the program fall on him. He knows it’s his responsibility to guide his team to the elusive Elite Eight and beyond for the first time in his nearly decade-long stay in Columbus.
The talent has been good enough and the proverbial monkey is on his back.
“I don’t think this team had the monkey. If you want … you can put it on my back,” Foster said after his team beat Georgia Tech. “A lot of people like to throw it on your back and you can throw it on mine, but I don’t think they had the issue.”