INDIANAPOLIS — If Saturday’s second semifinal of the Big Ten is any indication of what the upcoming NCAA tournament will be like, fans better strap in.
Ohio State outbullied top-seeded and No. 11 Michigan State in a contest that had more than a win-or-go-home feel. It felt more like a title game.
Jantel Lavender tied a career high and set a tournament scoring record with 37 points while grabbing nine rebounds to send the Buckeyes into Sunday’s Big Ten Conference championship game after a 72-57 victory over the Spartans, who won the Big Ten regular season title.
Lavender was the first to admit that the intensity both teams played with gave a glimpse into how important games are this time of year.
Welcome to March Madness.
“It was an all-out war,” Lavender said.
With Saturday’s victory, Ohio State (21-9) now will play second-seeded Penn State in Sunday’s conference championship game. The Nittany Lions defeated Illinois 79-64 in Saturday’s first semifinal.
But before the Buckeyes set their sights on Penn State, a team Ohio State split the season series with, they were all smiles after the game in their third win over Michigan State (26-5) this season. Lavender left the court to a standing ovation from the Ohio State fans and cheers and chants could be heard from outside the Buckeyes’ locker room.
This one meant something.
“Every time we play Michigan State it’s like this,” sophomore guard Tayler Hill said after recounting the six ties and seven lead changes in the contest. “You know it’s going to be physical like that every time.”
Michigan State opened with a 10-2 run only to watch Ohio State claw back and grab a 16-15 lead. And again when the Spartans pushed ahead 26-24, Ohio State finished the half with a 17-9 spurt. The Buckeyes pulled ahead 46-41 in the second half, and the Spartans rallied with their own run to tie the game at 51 with 8:36 left.
But as the game wore on, it was evident that Ohio State had a slight advantage. The two teams combined for 34 turnovers, but a solid defensive stretch in the middle part of the second half turned out to be the difference.
“That was pretty much it,” Merchant said. “I liked our fight, but (Ohio State) came right back.”
Michigan State senior guard Kalisha Keane finished with 17 points and six rebounds in a marquee showdown with Lavender. Keane, the Big Ten’s Player of the Year, got off to a hot start but eventually found it difficult to get good looks when the Buckeyes’ guard duo of Samantha Prahalis and senior Brittany Johnson began pressuring and trapping her.
“This was the best atmosphere I’ve ever seen in a Big Ten tournament,” Keane said. “Tonight just wasn’t our night.”
But for Lavender, it was.
“It was just flowing tonight,” Lavender said with a grin. “The atmosphere here is awesome and I think we were able to show our toughness. Three games in three days is tough and we have to take this experience into the NCAA tournament.”
Ohio State coach Jim Foster said he already has a couple keys to beat the Nittany Lions in Sunday’s championship.
“Find Lucas,” Foster said of Penn State freshman Maggie Lucas. “(Alex) Bentley is terrific in the open floor. We haven’t seen a bad team in a while and we won’t the rest of the season.”