Another Battle With Illinois Awaits Buckeyes

As far as Jim Foster is concerned, the Ohio State women's basketball team is surging into the postseason. How that affects the past or vice versa he says is neither his nor his team's concern, though.

"They don't live in that world," the head coach said of his 12th-ranked Buckeyes, who open the postseason tonight for the Big Ten tournament at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. "I don't think we have any bloggers or all that nonsense. We just deal with each other. As a result, I think this group has really gotten better, really gotten focused, and does a really good job of keeping the external things where they belong."

Thus even if fans or media focus on Ohio State's recent tournament shortcomings, don't expect that to psych out this group of Buckeyes.

A major reason Foster feels that was is the hot streak his team takes with it west.

After a two-game losing streak in early February, the Buckeyes (24-5, 15-3) have ripped off five straight wins. They won all five games by double digits, including pressure-packed contests at Minnesota and Indiana that allowed them to regain control of their own destiny in the Big Ten race.

Now the Buckeyes enter the conference tournament again as champions and again as the No. 1 seed. Although that did not do them much good last season when Illinois knocked them out of the tournament the same day they started, Foster sees few parallels between this squad and its predecessor.

He said the difference is 180 degrees.

"We're healthy and we're playing very well," he said. "Last year we were going backwards."

Much of the reason for that was a lack of health for two of his three starting guards. While sharp-shooting guard Ashlee Trebilcock nursed a sore back and defensive demon Shavelle Little dealt with a knee that would eventually need surgery, the Buckeyes wobbled into the postseason despite locking down the No. 1 seed and a share of the conference title.

"This year we're fortunate and want to take advantage of that opportunity," Foster said. "A lot of times at this time of year it's about how good are you and how lucky are you."

Some would say being lucky is being better than good, but while the Buckeyes can be thankful for better health this season, luck needs be less of a factor because sophomores Brittany Johnson and Alison Jackson have proven to be capable replacements when Trebilcock and Little went through more minor bouts with health problems earlier in the season.

"Last year I don't think Brittany and Alison were playing with the intensity necessary to step in and contribute the way they have the last three or four weeks," Foster said. "So we have depth. This year when Shavelle got tweaked and Ashlee got tweaked, we didn't miss a beat."

While that group rotates through on the perimeter, the Buckeyes count on the formidable frontcourt duo of Jantel Lavender and Star Allen.

Monday Lavender became a two-time Big Ten player of the year after leading the conference in both scoring and rebounding, but Allen has been more than a second fiddle down the stretch.

Allen scored in double figures in her last five games, including twice setting her career high, and often becomes the focal point for the offense from the high post as teams concentrate on Lavender on the low block.

The last piece to the puzzle is Big Ten freshman of the year Samantha Prahalis, the conference's leader in assists.

With her flashy passing and love for open-floor playmaking, she has made Ohio State a transition team in a way it never was before.

And what awaits the Buckeyes in Indianapolis?

First tonight at 6 p.m. on the Big Ten Network is a sixth meeting with Illinois in two seasons.

The ninth-seeded Fighting Illini (10-20, 5-14) beat Penn State 58-49 on Thursday night in the opening round of the tournament.

Leading the way was first-team All-Big Ten forward Jenna Smith, who scored 24 points. A junior, she surpassed 1,500 points for her career against the Lady Lions.

She scored 13 points in the Illini upset last season but more importantly helped limit Lavender to 8 shots from the field. The Ohio State star made 6 and scored 14 points but the rest of the offense struggled.

As a team, the Buckeyes were 4 for 17 from three-point range, and their offense missed the passing and court vision of Allen, who missed most of the season with academic troubles.

In two meetings this season, Ohio State dominated.

Jan. 12 in Champaign, Ohio State blew open a close game in the second half and won 67-35. Allen had 13 points and 12 rebounds while Lavender put up 14 in both categories.

Ten days later the teams met in Columbus with the Buckeyes again triumphing easily. This time Lavender torched the Illini for 30 points while Allen added 13 in a 68-51 win.

"We know each other," Illinois head coach Jolette Law told reporters after her team's victory Thursday night. "I give the utmost respect to Coach Foster. He's a great coach. He's going to have this team prepared. Bottom line, we just have to make sure we're all on the same page at a time. If they do anything differently defensively, we need to make sure we can adjust.

"We're gonna focus on them, watch some film. We played them twice. It's really going to come down to how well we execute, how well we do things that we need to do."

In the Fighting Illini, Ohio State knows it will get a team that not only can beat them but knows how to make a postseason run.

After knocking off the Buckeyes last season, the Illini beat Michigan State to advance to the championship game, where they were not beaten until a Purdue buzzer-beater gave the Boilermakers a 58-56 win.

Speaking Wednesday before departing for Indianapolis, Foster said he believed both Penn State and Illinois had a similar run in them.

"Those two teams have good enough players, if they want to go, they can win four days in a row," he said. "They come out (hard) or their season is over. Sometimes teams don't want their season to be over. I think Illinois came out last year and tried to stretch it. They came within, what, three seconds of going to the NCAA tournament? That may be sitting there in their craw and they want that opportunity.

"I think this is a great test of our maturity because we can still affect our seeding in a very positive way and we need to understand that. That's the emphasis – every game's got a value."

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