Buckeyes Look To Topple Connecticut

Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden in New York City, the Ohio State women's basketball team will try to do something no one has done in more than two years: Beat Connecticut. The 11th-ranked Buckeyes want to show they are beyond the recent string of losses to the nation's best teams, too.

Head coach Jim Foster had a rather simple answer when asked what will be key to his Ohio State women's basketball team's ability to knock off mighty Connecticut on Sunday.

"Play hard," Foster said. "They play harder than anybody else. They play hard for 40 minutes and take a great deal of pride in that, and that's what you have to match."

The 11th-ranked Buckeyes (8-1) are the only thing standing between No. 1 UConn and an 88th straight victory that would equal the mark set by the legendary UCLA men's teams of the early 1970s.

While that is some heady stuff, Ohio State has plenty on the line, too.

The Buckeyes will try to become the first team to beat the Huskies since the 2008 Final Four and quiet those who criticize them for their work on the national stage in recent seasons.

While Ohio State is riding a streak of six consecutive Big Ten regular season championships, the Buckeyes have struggled against the best in the nation.

They have advanced to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament only twice in the past six years, and they lost soundly matchups with highly-ranked Maryland, North Carolina, Duke and LSU (twice) in the previous six seasons, although they swept a home-and-home with Oklahoma in 2005 and '06 and split two games with Rutgers.

This season Ohio State has scored victories against unranked LSU and Virginia along with No. 12 Oklahoma, but a loss at No. 24 Syracuse on Dec. 11 brought back questions about the Buckeyes' readiness to join the nation's elite.

They bounced back with an easy 87-55 defeat of visiting South Carolina-Upstate on Dec. 14, their last hurdle before taking on the Huskies, and said they look forward to the challenge of facing the Huskies and rehabilitate their reputation.

"We know we carry around a label we're not real happy about and we've got a little chip on our shoulder," Foster said. "I think this group wants to be different, and the understanding of that is it's every day. It's every day. And we can't make any excuses."

From a star standpoint, neither team will be lacking Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden in New York City (2 p.m. Eastern, ESPNU).

Ohio State has All-America center Jantel Lavender and All-Big Ten point guard Samantha Prahalis while UConn leans heavily on two-time national player of the year Maya Moore as well as fellow double-digit scoring guards Tiffany Hayes and Bria Hartley.

Guards Tayler Hill and Brittany Johnson are also double-figure scorers for the Buckeyes.

"I think we have weapons," said Prahalis. "Every one of us can contribute something. All of us can shoot and we have a great post player and great outside people."

Connecticut's biggest challenge will be stopping Lavender with a group of young post players that have at times drawn the scorn of head coach Gene Auriemma this year, and Ohio State will have its hands full with the versatile Moore on the perimeter.

Long-range shooting could be key to springing an upset. Ohio State led the nation at 40.2 percent from three-point range last season but is down to just 26.7 percent this year despite the return of top shooters Johnson and Sarah Schulze.

The Buckeyes did not need long-range proficiency to beat the overmatched Spartans, but that will not be the case when they take the floor with the Huskies, so contributions from Schulze and Johnson figure to be key. Schulze was 0 for 5 from beyond the arc in the loss to the Orange while Johnson made 3 of 8.

On the season, Johnson is 16 for 41 (39.0 percent), but Schulze has yet to find a rhythm. She is only 6 for 24 (25.0 percent) as a senior after making 57 of 138 (41.3 percent) last season.

The Huskies, who won their first nine games this season by more than 38 points per game, do a lot of things well, but perimeter shooting and defense are areas they have looked vaguely human at times so far.

Even if they are making shots, the Buckeyes know they cannot let up at any point against the relentless Huskies.

"No one on this team wants to get embarrassed," Lavender said. "UConn does not take plays off. We do have the necessary pieces to play a 40-minute game and I think we have to take that intensity that they have the whole game in order to contend with them because if we take one play off that's when their lead starts to build."

Consistency has been a big talking point early in the season, as has mental toughness as Foster tries to mold a team that will deal with adversity better than his earlier squads that did not end the season where they wanted to be.

While Foster tried to avoid putting too much emphasis on one nonconference game, he acknowledged a test against the best should end up being a big part of how this team develops.

"My point has been to them and will continue to be, ‘You can't wake up Sunday and say you're going to play hard today if you don't play hard every day. You've got to make that who you are,' " Foster said. "And I think we're slowly learning that lesson. You can't blame others. You've got to be one of those people who looks in the mirror. If you don't hold yourself accountable, you can't get better. We can't get better if it's always something else. Connecticut holds themselves accountable better than anybody else, so if you want to be like that, you better act like it. If you want to beat them, you have to be like them. It's simple."

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