EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Ohio State has a very potent inside-outside combination with center Jantel Lavender and point guard Samantha Prahalis.
It’s a one-two punch that keeps the No. 6 Buckeyes as the team to beat in the Big Ten after Saturday’s 65-62 victory at Michigan State (No. 21 ESPN/USA Today, No. 19 AP).
Prahalis scored 32 points while Lavender had 20 points and 13 rebounds for the Buckeyes (17-1, 5-0), who are seeking a record sixth straight Big Ten regular season crown. Both Ohio State stars made clutch plays late to keep the Buckeyes alone in first place in the early conference race.
“In close games down the stretch, we’re always going to have an opportunity because we have a great point guard and we have a great center,” Ohio State coach Jim Foster said. “You just have to be patient and make sure they’re involved in those plays.”
Four players scored in double figures for Michigan State (11-5, 2-3), led by Aisha Jefferson and Lykendra Johnson with 13 points each. Johnson added 12 rebounds.
Michigan State missed two shots in the final seconds in a desperate attempt to tie the game. The Spartans had led by as many as 11 points in the first half.
“It was a hard-fought game,” Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant said. “I thought it could have gone either way.”
Ohio State was the Big Ten preseason favorite among coaches and the media to win the crown again in 2009-10, while Michigan State was picked to finish second.
The Spartans have been good outside the Big Ten but already had stumbled twice in conference play, losing at home against Indiana and on the road at Wisconsin. The loss to the Buckeyes leaves Michigan State in an even deeper hole.
Michigan State took a 33-22 first-half lead, energized by a home crowd of 12,412 — third largest in school history. But Ohio State crawled back behind Prahalis and Lavender.
Prahalis made 10-of-20 shots from the floor, hitting 3s from the outside if she was open but also driving if she saw a gap in the Michigan State defense.
“If I saw an opening, I just went to the basket,” Prahalis said.
Lavender outmuscled Michigan State’s Allyssa DeHaan and other Spartans down low.
Michigan State led 35-31 at the half. Sarah Schulze and Prahalis hit 3-pointers to open the second half and give Ohio State a 37-35 lead. The Buckeyes led by as many as five points midway through the second half but Michigan State was able to regain the lead.
Prahalis tied the game at 61 on with two free throws with 1:42 minutes left. Two more Prahalis foul shots gave the Buckeyes a 63-61 lead with 1:14 left.
Michigan State’s Johnson cut the lead to 63-62 with a free throw. But Lavender answered with two foul shots with 35 seconds left to put the Buckeyes ahead 65-62.
DeHaan, who finished with 12 points, missed a 3-pointer with 11 seconds left. Brittney Thomas got the rebound and was able to get off a partially blocked shot as time ran down, but she wasn’t in 3-point territory.
Ohio State’s only loss of the season came Dec. 3 at Duke. The Buckeyes have won nine straight since that defeat.
Ohio State Head Coach Jim Foster
On his team’s second half performance…
I really liked our defense more down the stretch. I think down the stretch in close games we’re always going to have an opportunity, because we have a great point guard and we have a great center. We just have to be patient and make sure their involved in those plays, but you have to get stops and I think we did a great job of that in the last five or six minutes of the game. I’m just changing up our defense a little bit and making the shots a little more difficult and getting rebounds.
On how he changed the tempo in the second half…
Well, we just talked about our pressure and how we wanted it to be, and I think we took more time off the shot clock. I think that they were starting their offense a little bit later and a little bit deeper, and as a result we were able to effectively stretch them out and start to limit their opportunities and start to rebound better.
On how point guard Samantha Prahalis and center Jantel Lavender did in the second half…
We have two great players. They are very competitive, they want to win games and they’re going to put their responsibility into the game. They’re not afraid to take the shot that counts or the shot to win, and if they miss it their coming back the next time convinced that it’s going in. They are both good foul shooters, both can attack the basket off the dribble and both can shoot the ball very well when open from distance. So I just think we have a nice combination of those two on the floor and others have to match up with that.
On their defensive stops, specifically after turning the ball over…
We’re probably playing to fast on our bench, but what I like about us this year is that we forget it. We’ll remind ourselves in a film session that we could have done things a little differently and we’ll grow from it, but it’s about the score, and when we keep score in practice it gets feisty, it gets loud; it gets a little bit nasty. But I think they’ve learned the value of stops and I think they’ve learned the value of winning. Even though you turn the ball over, if you get a stop, you get another chance to win it, but if you just give up baskets and you want to exchange baskets I think you’re in trouble.
On how critical the stretch at the end of the first half was…
I think it was a big deal, and I thought that was probably our best blip of basketball in the course of the game, but again we just never let it get too far away. We just kept plugging, and again I say this all the time to my team, the pretty ones are so easy to win when your shooting high percentages, but it’s figuring out how to win them when they’re not pretty. It’s figuring out how to win when it’s a street fight, then it’s something else. It’s not necessarily a basketball game; it’s a lot more physical. The game is being called a certain way, and you have to adjust and you have to adapt.
On Prahalis and Lavender being the only two to score the last 17 minutes of the game…
I called those plays. Again, if you’re going to run a lot of pick and roles with two great players, you have to be able to defend it.