Andy Gottesman / Multimedia Editor
After the midseason slump that included eight losses in 15 games, the Ohio State women’s basketball team is back on the nation’s radar by being white-hot at just the right time.
The fourth-seeded Buckeyes extended their winning streak to 10 by beating No. 13 seed Central Florida, 80-69, in the opening round of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament on Saturday at OSU’s St. John Arena. Senior center Jantel Lavender led the Buckeyes with a 30-point, 11-rebound performance.
OSU (23-9) entered the game with a clear size advantage over the Knights (22-11), who don’t have a player on their roster taller than 5-foot-10. Lavender, 6-4, dominated the paint offensively, shooting 59 percent from the floor.
While UCF tried to pack the key on the defensive end in an attempt to contain Lavender, it opened things up for the rest of the Buckeyes, who shot nearly 53 percent as a team.
“When we get two (ball) reversals at least, we’re very hard to guard,” OSU coach Jim Foster said. “Our offensive talent and ability that’s on the floor maximizes itself.”
OSU’s lead hovered around double digits for most of the contest. Midway through the second half, the Buckeyes’ lead was as large as 16, and shrunk to as small as eight with two minutes to play.
Lavender and senior guard Brittany Johnson keyed the Buckeyes’ first half by scoring 16 and 12 points, respectively. Johnson made three of her five 3-point attempts, despite the rest of the team going 0-for-6 from beyond the arc.
Lavender said playing on OSU’s campus to start the NCAA Tournament gave the team a definite boost, and likened the atmosphere at St. John Arena to what she experienced all season playing home games at the Schottenstein Center.
“I think it feels like a home game. We had a lot of fans and it was loud,” she said. “It’s just fun playing here. It seems like it’s a lot louder because it’s more compact than the Schott.”
Knight coach Joi Williams said there’s always an inherent disadvantage for teams playing on the road but that facing a raucous crowd contributes less to the game’s outcome than people think.
“The crowd is not what’s going to beat us,” Williams said. “We can’t go to completely neutral sites. … Ideally, you’d love to play on a neutral court, but that didn’t happen. We got the draw we got.”
The Buckeyes moved the ball around effectively, having 23 assists on the team’s 32 field goals. The team forced 18 UCF turnovers while having 11 of its own.
“I thought we played good defense,” Foster said. “I thought we played sound defense.”
UCF was able to keep the game from getting out of hand early by outrebounding the Buckeyes, 19-16, through the opening half. The Knights finished the game by winning the rebound battle, 36-27, despite their size disadvantage.
Foster downplayed his team’s inability to win the battle on the glass, saying he thought UCF was able to get so many rebounds because OSU’s quality defense was forcing poor shots.
For teams facing size disadvantages, it’s beneficial to accelerate the game’s tempo to wear down the larger opponent.
But Foster told a story that proves his emphasis on being able to play at that break-neck pace — especially for his star player, Lavender, who tied the NCAA all-time record for double-digit point performances with 134.
“When Jantel came here, I told her a story about Karl Malone, who I think she plays a lot like — she’s got that kind of game,” Foster said. “He thought that, before every game was even started, he had 10 points because he was going to beat the other team’s post players down the floor.
“I think Jantel’s taken that to heart, and I think that’s the way she plays. She’s got double-figure points before the game starts, if she runs.”
UCF cut the deficit to five in the first three minutes of the second half, when junior forward Ashia Kelly hit a three from the left wing. OSU responded quickly thanks to consecutive steals and baskets that brought the Buckeyes’ lead back to nine.
Kelly led the Knights with 16 points and went 4-for-7 from 3-point territory, while senior guard Chelsie Wiley added 14 and senior forward D’Nay Daniels had 13.
Kelly accounted for 16 of her team’s points in the game’s first 25 minutes, making four of her five 3-point attempts.
OSU junior guard Samantha Prahalis’ emphatic and-one layup with 1:21 remaining sealed it for OSU. The team’s emotional leader pumped her fist after driving to the bucket and finishing with her left hand, pushing the lead back to 10. Prahalis was left with an open wound after the play.
“Yeah, they drew blood; they fouled me,” she said after the game. “I’m OK.”
Prahalis had a double-double of her own, scoring 19 points and dishing out 10 assists.
OSU takes on No. 5 seed Georgia Tech (24-10) in the tournament’s second round at 7 p.m. Monday at St. John Arena. The Yellow Jackets beat No. 12 seed Bowling Green (28-5), 69-58, in the game preceding the Buckeye’s win on Saturday.