Buckeyes Pass First Big Ten Tournament Test

Jantel Lavender had another double-double and Star Allen nearly had one, but it was sophomore Brittany Jackson who was a thorn in the side of Illinois as Ohio State won its opening game in the Big Ten Tournament with a 70-53 victory.

Top-seeded Ohio State flexed its muscle early and often, making its first 10 shots from the field and running away from nine seed Illinois, scoring a 70-53 Big Ten Tournament victory Friday evening at Canseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

The Buckeyes made 31 of their 54 attempts in the game (57.4 percent) and were led by the sophomore tandem of Jantel Lavender and Brittany Johnson. The duo combined for 38 points and connected only 17 of 24 field-goal attempts.

Lavender turned in her 21st double-double performance of the season and the 34th of her career with 22 points and 11 rebounds. Johnson added 16 points that included a perfect seven-for-seven from the floor.

Senior forward Star Allen also contributed 10 points and nine rebounds for the Buckeyes.

Lavender and Allen formed a lethal inside combination for Ohio State down the stretch, combining for averages of 36.6 points and 16.8 rebounds over the team's final five regular-season games. But according to Illinois head coach Jolette Law, it wasn't the Buckeyes' relentless play in the paint.

"Everyone knows how good their inside game is," Law said, "but when Johnson scores like she did … I mean, she was perfect. She didn't miss a shot. How good is that?"

Johnson has become more and more of scoring threat for the Buckeyes this season – the point total represented her fifth double-figure outing in the last seven games. But OSU head coach Jim Foster said he was more pleased with the way his sophomore guard played at the other end of the court.

"I was more impressed with Brittany's defense to tell you the truth," he said. "She has been making shots. What Brittany has learned is how to play hard – at both ends."

While hitting their first 10 shots, the Buckeyes jumped out to a 24-7 lead at the 12:31 mark and they kept building on that advantage for the remainder of the first half. After being perfect during the early going, OSU cooled off a bit but still finished at 66.7 percent (18 for 27) in the first half.

Meanwhile, the Illini started off cold and stayed that way. They missed five of their first eight shots during Ohio State's early run and finished the opening half a chilly 8 for 26 (30.8 percent) that included at least four airballs. Compounding UI's problems – nine turnovers and getting outrebounded by a 21-9 margin.

"Any time you go on that kind of run, sometimes that makes you very nervous," Foster said. "You know you're not going to make every shot you take – no one continues to play at that tempo.

"But what calmed me was the way we played defensively. Even though we started missing some shots, Illinois was having trouble getting shots. Even the shots they took, they had to work hard to get them."

Illinois managed to outscore the Buckeyes by a 34-29 margin in the second half, but still only improved marginally in shooting. The Illini made 10 of their 28 shots after intermission and finished the game at only 33.3 percent (18 for 54).

After falling behind by as many as 26 points in the first half, Illinois made its only stand in the contest when it closed out the opening period by scoring five of the final six points and then tallying the first six points after the break. But that only pared the Illini's deficit to 16 points at 41-25. OSU responded with a 16-4 run over the next 5:52 to make it 57-29 and the Buckeyes coasted from there.

Illinois was led by junior center Jenna Smith, who had a game-high 23 points. Redshirt freshman guard and Ohio native Lydia McCully added 14 points while junior forward Lacey Simpson had 12 points and a team-high nine rebounds.

The win was the third for the Buckeyes this season against the Illini and ran OSU's record to 15-1 in the first round of the conference tournament. That lone defeat came last year when ninth-seeded Illinois knocked out the No. 1 Buckeyes.

The Buckeyes (25-5) advance to play the winner of the Iowa-Minnesota contest. Both the Hawkeyes and Gophers have beaten OSU this season. Minnesota dealt the Buckeyes their first Big Ten loss of the season, a 59-56 decision at Value City Arena back on Jan. 15, and Iowa took an 85-75 win Feb. 12 in Iowa City.

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