Based on recent results, it's hard to imagine that Ohio State and Rutgers won't be battling down to the final seconds in their Sweet 16 contest on Sunday afternoon at The Liacouras Center in Philadelphia.
Earlier this season, the Buckeyes nosed ahead in the last two minutes to
secure a 52-50 victory over the Scarlet Knights at Value City Arena. Last year,
it was Rutgers that closed with a 7-0 run to gain a 56-53 victory over OSU in
Two games, 80 minutes, and a one-point differential between two Top 10 teams with national coaching heavyweights on the sidelines.
Coach Jim Foster indicated that he has every expectation of another close one when discussing Ohio State's regional semifinal matchup during Saturday's media session at the game site, located on the campus of Temple University, Foster's alma mater.
"I remember when I was coaching at St. Joe's, and (then St. Joe's men's coach) Jim Lynam was getting ready to play Princeton when Pete Carril was the coach," Foster stated. "And at one point in time he just stopped and said, 'You know what? All this preparation is pure nonsense. No matter what we do, the score is going to be 51-49. And I don't know who's going to win. But that's the score. And I think you probably get the same feeling when you're playing Rutgers."
The second-seeded Buckeyes (30-4) will be facing a tough assignment in the third-seeded Scarlet Knights (27-6), who rank third in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 50.8 points per game. OSU's defense ranks fifth at 52.5 per game. Rutgers Coach C. Vivian Stringer is one of a small handful in the women's game who have accumulated more wins and more national accolades than Foster.
But it's the players who will decide the game on Sunday.
The Scarlet Knights will have to deal with OSU center Jessica Davenport, while the Buckeyes try to stop Rutgers guard Cappie Pondexter.
Davenport totaled 22 points and seven rebounds in the Jan. 16 victory over Rutgers. The 6-4 sophomore, named to the AP All-America team earlier this week, is definitely on Stringer's mind.
"I don't know that there's anyone in the country that can touch Davenport," Stringer said. "As much as we can try to change around our defenses, we can't get any taller. We're obviously going to have to double her. We're not going to allow Jessica Davenport to go one-on-one. Now, how we double her and where we come from, we'll have to see.
"But the thing about is, Ohio State has it all. Brandie Hoskins is one of the top field goal shooters in the country. You've got Davenport who can do it all. And then, look out, you've got the number one three-point shooter (senior guard Caity Matter) in the country out there, too."
The Scarlet Knights were able to hold down Hoskins, Matter, and the rest of OSU's potent perimeter shooters in the earlier meeting. That was also the case in last season's game at Rutgers.
However, in both games, Ohio State was eventually able to figure things out against Stringer's matchup zone defense and shoot better than 50 percent in the second half. In fact, the Buckeyes hit a blistering 76.5 percent of their field goal attempts in the second half of this year's game in Columbus.
The key figure on Sunday may well be Pondexter, a 5-9 senior who missed the first eight games of the season for personal reasons and still wasn't fully re-integrated into her team's overall gameplan on Jan. 16.
Pondexter scored the last seven points, including the game-winning three-pointer with 5.4 seconds to go, when Rutgers beat OSU last season. She was on everybody's All-America list at the start of the 2004-05 campaign. But she played just 19 minutes, scored five points, and was not on the floor at the end of the game against the Buckeyes on Jan. 16.
Foster didn't hesitate when asked to identify how the Scarlet Knights have improved since then.
"It's been Cappie's play," he said. "She's a pro. She's a great player and she's playing a lot of minutes when earlier in the year she wasn't. It's a pretty simple game, and when you throw a player like that into the mix, you're going to be better.
"Really, it's their whole perimeter game, and Cappie is just a part of it. I think Rutgers has a terrific perimeter game and their post players do what they're supposed to do. They rebound and they guard you. This is a Vivian Stringer basketball team. They have a lot of heart and a lot of energy because of those freshmen."
Foster was referring to 5-8 guard Matee Ajavon, the team's second-leading scorer, and fellow starter Essence Carson, a 6-0 guard/forward who does a little bit of everything for the Scarlet Knights. But the center of attention is definitely Pondexter, who averaged 23.5 points and 4.0 assists per game in two NCAA wins last week.
Rutgers will likely have the edge in fan support on Sunday, with its New Jersey campus located less than two hours from Philadelphia. But that doesn't figure to bother the Buckeyes, who are just a few days removed from winning a road game at Maryland to advance to this point.
"At this time of year I think both teams have seen a little bit of everything," Foster said. "I think what is odd about this game is that we're playing for the third time in 15 months, so it's almost like a conference game. There won't be any feeling out aspect to it."
The OSU-Rutgers contest will tip-off at approximately 2:30 p.m. on Sunday and will be televised by ESPN.