OSU Women's Cagers Headed Downtown To Dance

One would guess Jim Foster hopes this is the last week he has to answer questions about early NCAA tournament exits. The next tests in the head coach's plans to remake the Ohio State women's basketball team come this weekend at Nationwide Arena on the opening weekend of play in the NCAA tournament.

For now, with his team stuck on a two-year streak of first-round NCAA tournament exits and a four-year streak of losing to worse-seeded teams, Ohio State women's basketball head coach Jim Foster tolerates the questions.

Again the understandable inquiry came up about the postseason record after the announcement his Big Ten champion Buckeyes (27-5) would begin NCAA tournament play Saturday afternoon as the No. 3 seed in the Berkeley Regional. They will take on No. 14-seed Sacred Heart in a game scheduled to start around 2:30 p.m. and be broadcast on ESPN2.

"I think what we're trying to do is establish some type of tradition in the postseason because I think that's the one dimension that Ohio State needs to add to the resume," he said on the heels of leading the Buckeyes to a fifth straight Big Ten title. "1993 is a long time ago for a Final Four. The tradition of being in the tournament every year and then making something constructive and positive felt within the framework of the tournament is something we fully understand and fully take responsibility for. We're looking forward to another opportunity to see where we are in our quest to get better."

The first team the Buckeyes will face in that journey is a private school in Fairfield Conn.

Although he professed little specific knowledge about this version of the Sacred Heart squad, the Abington, Pa., native sounded as if he expects the Pioneers to come to downtown Columbus loaded for bear.

"I grew up in that neck of the woods and I know those small Catholic schools care about basketball and it's a priority on those campuses," Foster said. "They don't have football, and basketball is the sport. The same way people feel about Ohio State football, those schools feel about their basketball programs. They're passionate about it."

The Pioneers (25-7) are the champions of the Northeast Conference, where they posted a perfect 18-0 record in league play this season. Leading head coach Ed Swanson's team in scoring is NEC player of the year Aliso Alpo. The 5-9 sophomore guard averaged 17.0 points per game. She also had a team-best 41 steals and 131 assists while making 38.4 percent of three-pointers.

Inside, 6-4 senior center Kaitlin Sowinski offers some scoring punch to the tune of 16.1 points per game and leads the way with 7.6 rebounds and 95 blocks.

The other double-digit scorer for the Pioneers this season is 6-0 freshman Callan Taylor, who averages 11.7 points and 7.3 rebounds per contest.

Their recent postseason failings aside, don't expect the Buckeyes to overlook the Pioneers in anticipation of either sixth-seeded Texas or 11th-seeded Mississippi State.

Though half the current roster was on the team two seasons ago when the fourth-seeded Buckeyes lost to No. 13 Marist in an opening-round game, such lessons are not necessary with this more naturally focused group.

"I don't think that this team has any issues like that," Foster said. "I think they just understand what's next. They're going to treat whoever they play with a great deal of respect.

"I think we're a little more mature than we've been. It's about playing hard, and I think we've learned how to do that."

While being sure to show up prepared to take the best shot of an upstart from a small conference is one thing, having the ability to march beyond that point when major-conference challengers come along afterwards is another.

Foster hopes to have that taken care of as well by shifting to a more up-tempo attack keyed by point guard Samantha Prahalis, the Big Ten freshman of the year.

She, too, had to field questions about the Buckeyes' postseason struggles, and the Commack, N.Y., native spoke of the same kinds of things her coach had.

"I definitely want to get us off to a good start, but I wasn't really thinking about it much because last year was last year and this is this year," she said. "I haven't really thought about it long. We just want to get on a roll in the tournament."

While she is the straw that stirs the OSU attack, Prahalis has plenty of help.

The frontcourt duo of Jantel Lavender and Star Allen was nearly impossible to stop as the Buckeyes came down the home stretch, including wins in their last eight games.

Lavender, the conference player of the year after leading it in both scoring and rebounding, is dangerous both in the post and in transition, while Allen complements her with deft passing and a soft shooting touch.

When Ohio State needs outside shooting, Foster generally turns to senior Ashlee Trebilcock or sophomore Brittany Johnson.

At the defensive end, few can stand up to the perimeter pressure applied by guard Shavelle Little, the two-time Big Ten defensive player of the year, and Prahalis has shown a knack for playing off her to break up passes and force turnovers.

The stable of weapons is deeper than Ohio State has had in at least a couple of seasons, and Foster hopes they add up to the most formidable postseason version of his team that has been seen in quite some time.

"We can play different styles of basketball," the coach said. "We're not locked into one style. We've won games this year going up and down the floor and we've won halfcourt games. The other team might send three or four back and not let you run, so we've responded to that, so I think they feel comfortable that whatever style they're going to see we've had success against a variety of different sets."

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