A Conseco Fieldhouse crowd clothed mostly in scarlet and gray roared as the No. 1-seeded Buckeyes got out to a fast start and cruised to a 70-53 victory over No. 9 Illinois, avenging an upset from one season earlier.
A long look at the court and a quick glance at the scoresheet left little doubt about the identity of some of the significant differences between the upset and the blowout.
The Buckeyes benefited from the presence of Star Allen and Samantha Prahalis – neither of whom were available at this time last season – along with the notable improvement of Brittany Johnson and Alison Jackson.
Johnson, a 5-11 guard, was perfect from the field, hitting all 7 of her field goal attempts, including a pair of three-pointers. She finished with 16 points, and her 30 minutes were a far cry from her freshman year showing at Conseco: two steals and zero points on 0-for-3 shooting in six minutes.
Illinois head coach Jolette Law felt comfortable with how her post players matched up with Ohio State's, but Johnson was another story.
"The key factor was Johnson came in and started doing her damage," Law said.
"I think I'm more confident and my teammates are confident to me which allows them to pass me the ball and hit the shot," Johnson said. "But I think that last year I didn't look for my shot."
The 5-11 Jackson's stat line was much more inconspicuous (four points and four rebounds in 11 minutes) but her comfort at both ends of the floor was clearly much higher.
Ohio State head coach Jim Foster repeated again a message he has expressed throughout the season: both sophomores, who were high school stars in Illinois, have learned the value of sustained extra effort.
"A lot of times players coming out of high school don't understand the intensity necessary at this level, especially on the perimeter," he said. "Post players, they get a quicker blip, because if you don't understand it quickly, you just get the heck beat out of you. But the perimeter, it's more subtle, and I think last year when we got tweaked with injuries, they didn't understand the intensity level."
Johnson and Jackson both had turns late last season and against the Fighting Illini in the tournament, but neither could provide the lift OSU needed as starters Ashlee Trebilcock and Shavelle Little were in and out of the lineup with injuries.
"This year, when we got tweaked with injuries, they were more than ready, and they play hard every day, and as a result we're a better basketball team," Foster said.
Then there was Allen, the senior who has evolved into one of the offensive catalysts for the 2009 Big Ten Champions. She did not play in the conference tournament last season as she continued to sit out because of academic problems.
This time around she scored 10 points and grabbed nine rebounds, and her defense was crucial as she forced several turnovers that led to fastbreaks and easy baskets.
She also did her usual job of playing brilliantly in the post off Jantel Lavender, the two-time Big Ten player of the year who poured in 22 points.
"Star is a huge help," Lavender said. "I think she comes and she brings a lot of energy, and she plays extremely hard and she's fun to play with in the post, and the high-low game is like we have a good chemistry on the floor."
Lastly there was Prahalis, the Big Ten freshman of the year, who scored just six points but handed out nine assists. She also helped the Buckeyes stifle the Illini defensively on the perimeter and kept the offense flowing in both halfcourt and transition.
Tonight the Buckeyes will continue their quest to add a tournament title to their regular season championship when they take on No. 4 seed Iowa.
The Hawkeyes beat Minnesota 79-64 in the nightcap Friday. They dealt Ohio State its last loss, an 85-75 decision in Iowa City on Feb. 12.
The Big Ten Network will broadcast both games.