COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio State coach Jim Foster has usually been able to count on one thing for four years: at least 10 points and 10 rebounds from star post player Jantel Lavender.
Lavender didn’t disappoint in the first round of the NCAA tournament Saturday, scoring 30 points and grabbing 11 rebounds for her 75th career double-double to lead the fourth-seeded Buckeyes past pesky Central Florida 80-69.
Foster compared Lavender to one of the greatest players in NBA history.
“When Jantel came here, I told her a little story about Karl Malone — a player she plays a lot like,” Foster said. “He felt that before every game even started that he had 10 points because he was going to beat the other team’s post player down the floor three times for layups and get early positioning and get fouled. Jantel has taken that to heart. That’s the way she plays.”
The only four-time Big Ten player of the year, Lavender scored in transition, on medium-range jumpers and on her patented drop-step move on the block. The Buckeyes (23-9) improved to 60-15 when she hits double digits in points and rebounds in the same game.
“Yeah, that’s always important,” she said of her two-pronged production. “I know that if I have a double-double or if I rebound well and I score, our team really feeds off of that. It’s just fun. I guess that is how I measure if I play well.”
Samantha Prahalis had 19 points and 10 assists and Brittany Johnson had 14 points for Ohio State, which moved on to meet Georgia Tech (24-10) in Monday night’s second-round game at St. John Arena, the Buckeyes’ second home court. The Yellow Jackets beat Bowling Green 69-58 in the earlier game.
Lavender tied Oklahoma’s Courtney Paris (2006-09) for most career double-figure scoring games in Division I history. She now has 134.
Despite not having a starter taller than 5-foot-10 — the Buckeyes went with 6-5, 6-4 and 5-11 in their frontcourt — UCF (22-11) more than held its own on the boards (a 39-33 advantage) and wasn’t afraid to drive the lane. The Knights never backed down from the Big Ten tournament champions, who stretched their winning streak to 10 in a row.
But in order to hang around, they knew they couldn’t afford to commit two players to guarding Lavender.
“We knew that going in that that would be one of the things that we would have to give up to have them play into our game plan,” said Aisha Kelly, who matched D’Nay Daniels with 16 points for the Knights. “But (Lavender) did a great job of knocking down shots when she needed to.”
Up just 62-55 after Chelsie Wiley hit two free throws with 10:12 left, the Buckeyes ran off the next 11 points. Lavender had only two points in the run but contributed with her rebounding, defense and passing.
Still, the Knights didn’t fold. They came back with a 10-0 run — capped by Wiley’s 3 and a bucket by Daniels off Gevenia Carter’s steal to cut it to 73-65 with 2:22 left.
The rally faltered when they failed to score over the next 2 minutes.
With 1:21 left, after Lavender rebounded a missed layup, Prahalis dribbled in a circle around two picks and completed the three-point play to push the lead back to 76-65.
The Buckeyes never trailed after the opening minutes, but that didn’t mean it was easy.
“We hung in there and fought,” UCF coach Joi Williams said. “There were times that we could have easily given up. Ohio State did a great job. When you play a team of this caliber, you have very small room for error. So I just thought our turnovers got us tonight.”
The Knights ended up with 23 to Ohio State’s 10.
The Buckeyes are trying to erase the memory of several disappointing tournament finishes. In eight of their last 10 trips to the NCAAs, they failed to survive the second round, despite having preferential seeding and site placement in most of those tournaments.