SECOND ROUND REVIEW:
(3) OHIO STATE, 64 - (11) MISSISSIPPI STATE, 58
Boston College. Marist. Florida State. Say the names of those schools in the vicinity of an Ohio State women's basketball fan, player, or coach, and you're likely to get an unpleasant reaction.
Not so much on this night, however. Coach Jim Foster's club finally eliminated the black cloud that had been hovering over the program for a number of years. The Buckeyes, who had managed to reach the Sweet 16 on only one prior occasion in the Foster era, regained a place in the sport's elite by fighting past Mississippi State, 64-58, in their second round match-up on Monday evening in Nationwide Arena.
A school that has won or shared five straight Big Ten championships finally added some March Madness success to its in-conference dominance. It's hard to express just how cathartic this triumph is for a program that, in 2006 and 2007, SAW visions of a Final Four evaporate far too prematurely.
The '06 Buckeyes entered the NCAA Tournament with a 28-2 record and a Number One seed, only to lose to Boston College in the second round in West Lafayette's Mackey Arena. In 2007, Ohio State took a 28-3 mark into the Big Dance, only to lose to Marist at Maples Pavilion on the Stanford University campus.
Last season, the Buckeyes weren't Final Four material, but they did expect to win at least their first-round NCAA Tournament game against No. 11 Florida State in the New Orleans Regional. Instead, they got waxed by a decisive 60-49.
Entering this season, then, Foster had some unfinished business to tend to. In this six-point victory over Mississippi State, some--if not all--of the post-season pressure surrounding the program blessedly melted away.
It didn't look like things would end up that way for much of the evening, however. In an evening filled with upsets for other high seeds, the 11th-seeded Bulldogs, who had already upset fifth-seeded Texas to reach the second round, held a 58-54 lead after Alexis Rack converted a three-point play with just 6:43 left in regulation.
The third-seeded Buckeyes edged past the Bulldogs simply because they were able to get to the foul line and convert once they got there. Neither team lit up the scoreboard in those final six minutes and forty-three seconds of regulation time, and that's putting it charitably: No one on either team hit a single field-goal attempt in that long, excruciating stretch.
The Buckeyes, however, were able hit 10 free throws to turn a 58-54 deficit into the 64-58 final score, while keeping the Bulldogs off the charity line throughout that period. All in all, Ohio State scored 12 of their final 16 points at the foul line, while the Buckeyes dug in at the defensive end to deny the Bulldogs any uncontested, high-percentage shots.
In addition to ice-veins free throw shooting (Ohio State was 18-of-24, or 75 percent, from the stripe for the evening), it has to be said that this win was simply a by-product of the Buckeyes' newfound grit, and a refusal to lose that just didn't exist in past seasons. Foster's previous teams exhibited strangely passive body language and allowed themselves to become paralyzed when adversity arose.
This year's NCAA Tournament has witnessed the authoring of a decidedly different narrative. In the final minutes of this game, Buckeye defenders contained Alexis Rack--the speedy MSU guard who flustered Texas in Saturday's opening round--and clamped down on Bulldog forward Chanel Mokango, who went only one-for-11 from the field.
Rack finished with 19 points and six assists (but seven turnovers), while Tysheka Grimes, who posted 22 points and five rebounds for the Bulldogs.
|Mississippi State forward Tysheka Grimes goes up for a basket against Ohio State guard Samantha Prahalis (21) during a second-round women's NCAA college basketball tournament game Monday, March 23, 2009 in Columbus, Ohio. Grimes led the Bulldogs with 22 points.|
Jantel Lavender led the Buckeyes with 20 points plus eight boards, and Star Allen put up a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds. One of those boards came at a critical juncture. With Ohio State clinging to a four-point lead and 15 seconds left to play, Allen grabbed an offensive rebound, forcing Mississippi State's Armelie Lumanu to foul to stop the clock. Allen calmly made both, putting the game on ice.
|Ohio State center Jantel Lavender, left, and Mississippi State forward Chanel Mokango battle for a rebound during a second-round women's NCAA college basketball tournament game Monday, March 23, 2009 in Columbus, Ohio. |
Though freshman guard Samantha Prahalis, the hero of Ohio State's first-round squeaker against Sacred Heart, put up only eight points on one-of-nine from the field in the second-round victory, her contribution exceeded the numbers in the final box score.
Prahalis's defensive hustle was critical to the Buckeyes' success, and she, like Allen, came up big in the final minutes. It was Prahalis's free throw that tied the game for Ohio State at 58 apiece with three-and-a-half minutes left to play. Then, with the Buckeyes up by just two points, 58-60, and 1:45 left on the clock, Prahalis picked Grimes' pocket. Though unable to capitalize on the steal with a three-point attempt at the offensive end, strong offensive rebounding by the Buckeyes following this turnover kept the ball out of the Bulldogs' hands for nearly a full minute.
Forced to foul, the Bulldogs put Prahalis at the line, where she nailed both penalty shots to give her team a four-point lead with 23 seconds left. In all, Prahalis went five-of-six from the line, with three of those points coming down the stretch.
|Mississippi State guard/forward Armelie Lumanu goes up for a basket against Ohio State guard Samantha Prahalis during a second-round women's NCAA college basketball tournament game Monday, March 23, 2009 in Columbus, Ohio. Prahalis's defense played a key role in the Buckeyes' victory.|
FIRST ROUND AT A GLANCE:
(11) MISSISSIPPI, 71 - (6) Texas, 63
Click here for Full Court's special story on the details of this game.
(3) OHIO STATE, 77 - (14) SACRED HEART, 63
For a time it looked like Ohio State might face a reprise of last year's early tournament exit. The Buckeyes found themselves up by a tenuous 46-44 score against the automatic bid from the Northeast Conference, who entered the tournament with a 14-seed and an RPI of just 83.
Finally, with just under 13 minutes left in regulation, reserve guard Maria Moeller, launched an Ohio State run, hitting three of her four three-pointers down the stretch. Spurred by Moeller's long-distance marksmanship, the Buckeyes pulled it together and pulled out the win.
As was the case in Monday's win over Mississippi State, Ohio State claimed this contest largely due to its ability to get to the foul line. While Sacred Heart earned only six free throws, the Buckeyes shot 29 fouls shots, making 21 of them. Prahalis--even more than Lavender--was primarily responsible for Ohio State's parade to the charity stripe. The spunky freshman--clearly the best player on the floor in this game--went 10-for-14 at the line on her way to 23 points. Prahalis also dished out seven assists, snagged four rebounds, and committed only one turnover in 38 minutes on the court.
LOOKING AHEAD FOR OHIO STATE
As the Buckeyes now look ahead in the tournament, they're in for a tough but tantalizing matchup when they play second-seeded Stanford in the Berkeley Regional semifinals on Saturday. The two teams share many of the same strengths. Stanford is coached by a person every bit as detail-oriented as Foster: Tara VanDerveer, who once coached at Ohio State in the 1980s.
Both teams prefer an up-tempo game, although the Buckeyes do possess the power needed to thrive in a halfcourt game. Both are outstanding defensive teams.
Ohio State post players Jantel Lavender and Star Allen will enable Ohio State to compete against anyone within 10 feet of the basket. Lavender's battle with Stanford center Jayne Appel will be a five-star matchup. Outside of that duel, Allen will find herself locked up with the Cardinal's freshman post sensation Nnemkadi Ogwumike in a confrontation almost as compelling as Lavender-Appel.
Prahalis, too, will find herself in a critical match-up against Stanford's sophomore guard Jeanette Pohlen, considered by some to be the heart of the Cardinal team. Pohlen has performed brilliantly in making the move from her natural off-guard position to taking over the point after Stanford's floor general J.J. Jones suffered a season-ending injury in November.
In the end, the outcome might very well come down to Prahalis's is able to spread the floor and break down Stanford's defense with her own ample toolbox of superb skills.
Prahalis, a much-heralded recruit from Long Island, New York, has been given an unusual amount of freedom by Foster, one of the sport's best clinicians and a man who generally likes a more structured style of play. Not wanting to stifle his point guard's combination of fearlessness and creativity, Foster has allowed his floor general to learn from mistakes more than explicit direction. So far, that move has paid off for Foster, but on Saturday, the Buckeyes will encounter an opponent likely to punish any freshman blunders.