Prahalis sets Ohio State single-season record with 259 assists; Buckeyes will face Wisconsin in Saturday’s semifinals at 7:15 p.m. ET
INDIANAPOLIS — Ohio State’s Jantel Lavender was strong and dominant in the post. Samantha Prahalis relied on her all-conference quickness to control the perimeter.
Just like the Buckeyes have come to expect from their strong tag-team tandem.
One problem against Illinois: Ohio State’s other players weren’t themselves Friday night.
The 10th-ranked Buckeyes had to continually fend off Illinois’ comebacks before finally pulling away in the final minute for a 66-55 win in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals.
“In the first half, I think we were rushing a little bit,” Lavender said. “As far as me in the post, I don’t think I was getting as deep as I should have. It was physical. Once I made that adjustment with getting deeper in the lane, I think it turned around a little bit.”
With Lavender, even on an off-night, the Buckeyes (28-4) can overcome almost anything.
No, the conference’s three-time player of the year didn’t get her usual double-double. She finished with 19 points and six rebounds. She also forced Illinois’ top scorer, Jenna Smith, to catch the ball farther away from the basket than Smith would have liked.
Prahalis added 13 points and eight assists and constantly menaced Illinois in the passing lanes, while Brittany Johnson hit three 3-pointers and finished with 13 points.
But the Buckeyes had an off-night shooting. They made just 40 percent from the field, including 6 for 22 from 3-point range, got outrebounded 45-34 and struggled to wrap up the victory.
It was the third straight year a ninth-seeded Illinois team met the top-seeded Buckeyes in the quarterfinals, with the Illini winning two years ago and the Buckeyes returning the favor last season. Now the defending tourney champions will face either Purdue or Wisconsin in Saturday’s semifinal.
“Some days, you’re going to make a lot of shots, some days you’re not,” said Ohio State coach Jim Foster, who has won a record six straight Big Ten regular-season titles. “They’re a very, very good defensive team. They’re a very good basketball team.”
Starting with Smith.
The senior forward had 13 points and 11 rebounds in her final conference game, enough rebounds to break Lynnette Robinson’s nearly three-decade-old single-season record at Illinois. But Smith also fell three frustrating points short of becoming the school’s career scoring leader.
Ashley Berggren scored 2,089 points with the Illini. Smith has 2,087, a mark she could still get if the Illini (16-14) earn a postseason bid.
“Yeah, we were aware,” coach Jolette Law said. “She started getting some shots. We were trying to win the ballgame, but I also wanted her to get some shots. She needed a couple points. She had a couple looks, they just didn’t go in.”
Lacey Simpson had 13 points, seven rebounds and four assists for the Illini but she also fell two steals short of moving into second place on the Big Ten’s career list.
The numbers didn’t bother the Illini. Losing to the Buckeyes for the third time this season did.
“I can’t describe how it feels,” Smith said when asked about the likelihood of finishing her career without an NCAA tourney appearance. “It just hurts to know we haven’t been there. We did what we could all four years.”
But Smith, Simpson & Co. couldn’t outdo the Buckeyes in Indy.
Ohio State opened the game by building a 17-7 lead and twice in the first half had chances to put Illinois in even bigger holes. Instead, Illinois rallied, cutting a 22-12 deficit to 24-19 and then staying within 33-24 at the half even after the Buckeyes went on a 7-0 run.
Illinois opened the second half with five straight points, to make it 34-29. The Buckeyes answered that with an 11-4 run and extended the lead to 55-39 with 8:46 to go.
Game over, right?
The Illini charged back with a 14-2 run over 3 1/2 minutes to close within 57-51.
Ohio State closed it out with free throws in the final minute.
“I think when they made that last run and they were coming at us, we switched out of our zone and went man and I think we did it very aggressively and very soundly. It disrupted their continuity.”