Another Big Ten Title Could Come Tonight

During the three-game winning streak in which the 14th-ranked Ohio State women's basketball team has regained control of its own destiny in the Big Ten championship race, an observer could point to any number of areas in which the Buckeyes have excelled before Wisconsin pays a visit to Value City Arena.

There has been better shooting from the outside. Great pressure defense has led to plenty of turnovers and fast-break baskets. A fast tempo in transition offense and more patient halfcourt attack have brought an up tick in scoring. Ohio State outrebounded all three opponents and shot more foul shots in every game as well.

But head coach Jim Foster had an alternative take– as he often does – when asked what part of his team's game is going best right now.

"I don't know if it's a phase of the game," he said. "I think it's a mentality. I think we play hard."

That sounds like a simple thing, but he has raved about the Buckeyes' work ethic all season and said Wednesday this is the first team in his seven seasons in Columbus that has seemed to have basketball ingrained in the fiber of the players.

"I think they have a passion for the game," he said. "I think it's probably the first team I've had here that watches basketball and talks about basketball off the floor. In conversations you can hear them talking about games they saw on television. And they work hard. They work very hard, and they want to get better. They're just fun to be in the gym with."

The team not only gets along, it is competitive, and the combination of closeness and the competitiveness has had no small effect on this squad, and that is no small distinction from a year ago.

Last season part of the starting lineup was different but most of the roster was not. While the starters did their thing most nights, the bench lacked much contribution. Foster attributed much of that to youth. Nearly every important reserve, especially in the backcourt, was a freshman or a sophomore.

While players such as Brittany Johnson and Alison Jackson – two highly rated recruits who were freshman last season – learned the ropes of the college game and what it means to work hard to earn playing time, the Buckeyes largely lived and died by what starters Marscilla Packer, Jantel Lavender, Shavelle Little, Ashlee Trebilcock and Tamarah Riley were able to accomplish on a given night.

Such a formula was complicated further by a sore knee that slowed Little at times and a bad back that limited Trebilcock's effectiveness.

When one of that duo could not go, the replacements were not always up to the task of filling their shoes adequately, and perhaps the lower level of competition in the gym prevented the other starters from pushing themselves to be the best they could be every night, either.

Whatever the case, though the Buckeyes won the Big Ten, they did not exactly roll through the competition.

Unlike the previous two seasons, they were not outright Big Ten champions. Like the previous two seasons, they struggled in the postseason. Their fall in the opening round of the NCAA tournament was a repeat of the year before, but their failure to win even one game in the Big Ten tournament was a new low, a never-before-seen occurrence under Foster's watch.

This year, and especially during the current three-game winning streak, many have made significant contributions.

While the arrival of freshman point guard Samantha Prahalis has been a major factor, so, too, has the emergence of Johnson as a reliable outside shooter. Jackson has made a few plays in spot duty, and former starting point guard Maria Moeller provides a deft shooting touch and steady ball handler when necessary.

Such performances are needed because Trebilcock has again been in and out of the lineup, this time with a knee problem.

Up front, 6-5 junior Andrea Walker has played key minutes in the last two games as Lavender has dealt with foul trouble, and Allen has lived up to her unique first name by averaging 18 points per game.

They all hope they are primed to put all the postseason struggles behind them, but first things are first.

Wisconsin (16-12, 6-11) visits Value City Arena tonight (7 p.m., streaming live) for a game that could provide the clincher to Ohio State's fifth straight Big Ten championship.

Such is the case in part because the Badgers knocked off Michigan State on Sunday afternoon, an upset in Madison that dropped the Spartans one game behind the Buckeyes with two left to play.

Though the Badgers are below .500 in league play, they are not exactly pushovers, as their win over the Spartans proved. Wisconsin held the Buckeyes well below their usual scoring output (68.5 points per game) in a 55-42 OSU win in Madison on Jan. 8.

"They're a really good team," Trebilcock said. "That's why we still have to not think about, ‘Oh, if we win this, then we're tied for this and we might win this.' You know, it's just all we have to do is win the Wisconsin game at this point. That's Thursday and that's all we're thinking about."

Not that she is not excited about the chance to be part of history as Ohio State tries to complete the second ever run of five straight Big Ten women's basketball crowns. The Buckeyes first achieved the feat from 1983-87.

"It's great, and it's amazing that this could possibly be the fifth straight, but we still have two games left and Wisconsin and Penn State (Sunday's opponent) are never a joke," Trebilcock repeated. "We just have to continue to get prepared for our next game on Thursday. We're not thinking anywhere past that right now until it actually happens."

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