Courtesy of Jim Davidson, theOzone.net
INDIANAPOLIS — The Ohio State women’s basketball team slogged through confetti and streamers as it cut down the nets after claiming its third consecutive Big Ten Tournament title Sunday.
Following a Feb. 6 loss to Northwestern at the Schottenstein Center, the Buckeyes had a 4-6 record in Big Ten conference play, and their future seemed bleak.
Fast-forward to 3:30 p.m. Sunday.
OSU (22-9), the Big Ten Tournament’s No. 5-seeded team, was tipping off in the championship game against No. 2-seeded Penn State (24-9) at Conseco Fieldhouse.
Fast-forward again to about 5:25 p.m.
At that moment, the Buckeyes were hoisting the Big Ten Tournament championship trophy above their heads at midcourt as confetti showered over them.
The title was the fourth in program history.
Senior center Jantel Lavender and junior guard Samantha Prahalis propelled the Buckeyes to the victory, grabbing a game-high 23 points apiece. 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 guard Brittany Johnson and Lavender, respectively, and it appeared that Prahalis assumed that role in the first half against Penn State.
The Lady Lions 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, 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.
Prahalis said Penn State’s defense allowed her open looks at the basket.
“I had a lane,” she said. “Every night is different for me. It’s just what the game brings.”
Lavender added nine points of her own as OSU took a 44-39 lead to finish the half.
But 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 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 layup for her, which extended the lead to 59-46 in the second half.
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 redshirt 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 extended its lead.
Johnson missed a 15-foot jumper after nearly letting the shot clock expire, and Lavender hauled in the offensive rebound with 2:12 remaining. The Buckeyes retained possession for the remainder of the game, coasting to an 84-70 win.
Lavender credited the win, at least in part, to OSU’s experience in prior Big Ten title games.
“I definitely think our experience here has helped us win this game,” Lavender said. “I think us having that experience in the last three years (helped us to) just deal with three games in three days.”
That’s exactly what the Buckeyes did.
OSU had to overcome No. 4-seeded Iowa, No. 1-seeded Michigan State and No. 2-seeded Penn State before the indoor fireworks could be detonated overhead at Conseco Fieldhouse. Each opponent presented a different challenge, but the Buckeyes were up to the task.
By virtue of its 10-6 regular-season record in conference play, OSU earned a bye into the tournament’s quarterfinals and began play Friday against the Hawkeyes (22-8).
Lavender and Prahalis, the Buckeyes’ top two scorers, were slow to get involved on the offensive end of the court that night, but Johnson picked up the slack.
Johnson scored a season-high 23 points on 8-of-16 shooting, and her 7-of-14 shooting from 3-point range was instrumental in OSU’s 71-61 win.
“I was just in the zone, I guess,” Johnson said following the game. “I just wanted to step up and help my teammates out. That’s what I did.”
After her team suffered elimination from the tournament, Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said Johnson is a threat on the court.
“You’ve got to know where she is all the time,” Bluder said. “She is a really, really good 3-point shooter.”
On day three of the tournament, OSU played Michigan State (26-5) with a berth in the championship game on the line.
Lykendra Johnson, Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, was standing between the Buckeyes and a third consecutive tournament title — literally. But Lavender made quick work of her with a historic performance.
Lavender torched the Spartans for 37 points, a Big Ten Tournament single-game scoring record, en route to a 72-57 win. Lavender also tied the tournament’s single-game record with 15 field goals on 15-of-20 shooting to help the Buckeyes get to Sunday’s championship game.
With his team on the doorstep of history, OSU coach Jim Foster lauded the Buckeyes’ focus after Saturday’s win.
“We’re smart enough, patient enough,” Foster said. “Good teams don’t get real high and don’t get real low. We just go about our business.”
Despite her record-breaking performance, Lavender did not emphasize her personal accomplishments, but focused instead on what her team did well in its three wins against the Spartans this year.
“The times that we’ve played Michigan State our team has really (understood) who we are as a team,” Lavender said. “It’s not any different situation, except for the number by our team is No. 5, and I think we’re playing like the No. 1 seed right now.”
Lavender said after Saturday’s win that she “likes playing at Conseco Fieldhouse.” Sunday’s championship game against the Lady Lions afforded her, along with senior teammates Johnson, guard Alison Jackson and forward Sarah Schulze, a chance to exit the arena as Big Ten champion one last time.
Foster said the 2010–11 team is better than the previous two teams he coached to Big Ten titles.
“I would say this was the best team of the last three,” Foster said. “I think how we won this is a reflection of that.”
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.
With the NCAA Tournament still to come, Prahalis said her team has a good sense of where it is and where it’s been.
“We’re very confident,” she said. “We don’t forget where we was a month ago. All we have is each other.”
OSU will represent the Big Ten in the NCAA Tournament for the ninth consecutive year.