The Tar Heels are a fitting measuring stick for the Buckeyes in year two under head coach Kevin McGuff, whose intention from day one in Columbus has been to turn Ohio State into a high-octane team at both ends of the floor.
It was the North Carolina who provided the first national test for Ohio State six years ago when McGuff's predecessor Jim Foster tried to transform his own version of the Buckeyes into a run-and-gun outfit. They had been -- and would continue to be -- very successful under Foster in the regular season but often fell short in the NCAA tournament.
Generally known for playing a plodding style based around a dominant post presence, the coach who is now a member of the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame reasoned the increasingly physical defense being allowed across the country made executing his preferred style of offense more and more difficult. Teams found it too easy to lock down on the stationary targets his offense created, so he decided to stop being so reliant on scoring in half-court sets.
Foster made an effort to recruit players more suited to an up-tempo game, and the centerpiece was a 5-7 fireball of a point guard from Long Island named Samantha Prahalis. "Pistol Pete with a Ponytail" was a freshman when second-ranked North Carolina came to Columbus in the late fall of 2008, and she put on a show in front of 5,045 people at Value City Arena, dishing out 13 assists, some of the spectacular variety.
Syliva Hatchell had one of the best seats in the house that night as the head coach of the Tar Heels, and she came away impressed with both Prahalis and her coach.
"Let me tell you -- they've got a point guard that can flat out go, and she can run a team like that," Hatchell said in her thick Southern drawl. "The rest of them just need to go with her. That kid is going to be a great player. She played 40 minutes, and she missed some shots, but the kid had 13 assists. Get on down there with her and give her somebody to get the ball to. She makes them a better team, and the fans love her, too. She's going to be fun to watch. Seems to be a great kid, too."
Hatchell also praised Foster for trying something new after 30 years on the bench.
"I congratulate him for changing, I guess, with the times because I really think he's gonna have a team that can really do a lot of damage and probably win their conference," she said.
The Buckeyes lost 72-63 that night, but they did go on to win the Big Ten regular season and conference tournament titles before making the Sweet 16 for the first time in four years.
The great experiment with Prahalis transforming the tenure of Foster never quite reached full maturity, however.
Ohio State won its fifth and sixth consecutive Big Ten titles under Foster with Prahalis at the controls and All-American Jantel Lavender in the post, but they never made even an Elite Eight.
Prahalis and Lavender both finished their careers as all-time greats with their names all over the record books, but the rosters surrounding them did not quite have the depth of other teams vying for supremacy in women's basketball, where power is still concentrated more at the top than it is in the men's game.
Despite the presence of a spark plug like Prahalis, the run-and-gun style never fully took hold, either. The Buckeyes ran more after she arrived, but they were still prone to bogging down at times, and their defense and rebounding effectiveness declined from earlier seasons under Foster.
Chemistry issues nearly derailed the last Prahalis-Lavender team in 2011, but they got it together in time for a late-season surge that included winning the Big Ten tournament and advancing to the Sweet 16 in Dayton. There they found waiting No. 1 seed Tennessee. Though the Lady Vols haven't quite been the same vintage over the past few seasons, they were still coached by the legendary Pat Summitt -- and they still had twice as many McDonald's All-Americans as Ohio State. Being able to bring a couple more off the bench when her team was trailing proved to be a difference for Summitt, whose team won 85-75.
That marked the beginning of the end of Foster's program at Ohio State. He was fired two years later with the administration citing recruiting concerns among the factors.
In his first season after being hired from Washington, McGuff promptly signed the nation's No. 2 class, one with a centerpiece that is Kelsey Mitchell. The nation's leading scorer and Big Ten Player of the Year as a freshman this season, Mitchell has led a revival that wasn't expected until next season at the earliest as two members of her class were felled by knee injuries in October.
As good as Prahalis was, Mitchell is an even more dynamic playmaker and a better scorer thanks to her in-the-gym shooting range.
With the help of classmate Alexa Hart and juniors Ameryst Alston and Cait Craft, Mitchell has fueled a new kind of style at Ohio State. Though depth issues still prevent McGuff from implementing the high-pressure defense he would like as much as he would like, the Buckeyes rank fifth in the nation in scoring at 80.9 points per game.
They certainly have the attention of the Tar Heels, who have annually been one of the highest-scoring teams in the country under Hatchell.
"They play at a very fast pace and we are Carolina basketball, we play just as fast or even faster," North Carolina guard Brittany Rountree said Sunday. "I think it will be a good game tomorrow."
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