Buckeyes Over One Hurdle, Eager For Next

The Ohio State women's basketball team hopes to use its Big Ten tournament championship as a stepping stone to bigger and better things later this month. With one postseason demon exorcised, the players are optimistic their NCAA tournament showing will not resemble the past few.

Physically closer to whole than they have been at the end of either of the past two seasons, the Buckeyes jumped a mental hurdle with their 67-66 win over Purdue in the tournament title game Sunday in Indianapolis.

Ranked ninth in the most recent edition of the Associated Press poll, they will take nearly two weeks off before trying to atone for consecutive first-round exits from the NCAA tournament.

This time they will do so coming off a win rather than disappointment.

"I think all of us are really excited," Buckeye Maria Moeller said in the victors' locker room Sunday. "It's always good to have momentum going into the NCAA tournament. The past two years we've had bad losses, so I think this is a really big moment for us. We finally got over that hump in the final game."

Beating the local favorite Boilermakers, who entered the title game having won eight consecutive games in the Big Ten tournament over a three-season span and as the two-time defending champions of the event, was especially satisfying.

"Our coach kept saying this was like the Purdue Invitational, and we were so tired of hearing that," said Jantel Lavender, Ohio State's sophomore center who was named the tournament's most outstanding player. "We've been playing great basketball these last two games, and we came out with this energy, playing extremely hard, and if we play for each other we should be successful.

"I think it gives the team confidence in general for the tournament. You know how it feels to be a champion, you know what it takes to win these hard games and just fight to the end."

Shavelle Little, a junior like Moeller who was around for the 2007 Big Ten title game in which the favored Buckeyes lost to Purdue, believes this group has a better mindset than the last two did by the time March rolled around.

They have had a full season to digest the changes in style of play head coach Jim Foster implemented during the preseason, and in Indianapolis Ohio State generally had more cylinders firing than at any other time this season.

"I just think that we're more confident as a team, all together," Little said. "I just think we know what we're capable of and we try to stick within our limitations. We stick within our principles. In November, we were still kind of learning, doing different things with (freshmen) Sam (Prahalis) and Amber (Stokes) coming in and everybody trying to get adjusted to what he wanted. Now we know what he wants. We know how to play within the principles that he want us to play with."

While hearing Foster's messages has rarely ever been a problem, the players are also aware of some other chatter out there in Buckeye Nation and beyond. They know that some fans, especially those who might follow the women's basketball program only from afar and thus tend to see the tournament losses without the corresponding struggles and success of the regular season, believe they have underachieved in recent seasons.

"Oh yeah, we've talked about that, but I think we know that we're a better team than we have been the past two years and it's just about focusing on the game ahead of us and executing," Moeller said.

"I really don't care about who looks at the program in what way," Lavender said. "I know that we're making progress and we're getting better. I don't care what people think on the outside. We know what's going on here. We know that we're building to be a really great team, and I think that we'll be successful in the postseason. If nobody wants to watch and everybody's doubting us, I think that makes us even stronger.

"We're going to set mini goals for ourselves, and I think that we need to start off with trying to get to the sweet 16 and then taking it one game at a time. Just having small mini goals to be successful in the tournament, because I think we are a great team that can go far in the tournament."

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