COLUMBUS, Ohio — In the second half of Thursday’s 78-47 victory over Northwestern, Ohio State rediscovered an element it had been missing.
The Buckeyes (No. 12 ESPN/USA Today, No. 10 AP) made up for lost time by shooting 62 percent from the field and outscoring the Wildcats 48-22 after halftime.
Samantha Prahalis had 14 assists on a variety of behind-the-back and over-the-head passes and Jantel Lavender scored 26 points and had 12 rebounds for the Buckeyes (27-4, 14-4), who may have lost their focus after clinching an unprecedented sixth straight Big Ten title on Feb. 14.
“I think we’ve been spending the last two weeks figuring out how we should act,” coach Jim Foster said. “I’ve been doing this 32 years and I’ve never had the opportunity to clinch a championship with four games to go. We were just, ‘How are we supposed to act?’ I think we finally figured it out in the second half.”
The Buckeyes got to cut down the nets and lead a group dance with the fans after the game. It was the first time they’ve been able to really let loose since they locked up the top seed in next week’s Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis.
Asked what it was like when they blitzed the Wildcats (16-12, 7-10) with a 17-3 run to start the second half, Prahalis smiled.
“It’s like a lot of fun. We were just flowing really well, everyone was hitting shots,” she said after also adding 14 points. “It’s just us playing together and getting back to the way we used to play. You know, having fun. I think we got away from having fun and we were a little stiff.”
The 14 assists tied Prahalis’ career best, set earlier this season against California.
“Prahalis, when she is given space, she’s going to find people,” Northwestern coach Joe McKeown said. “And they’ve got people who can finish.”
Ohio State was unbeaten at home, winning its first 18 games, before falling to Michigan State in overtime on Sunday. Prahalis came into that game having hit 47 consecutive free throws but missed 7-of-11 — many of which could have clinched the game in regulation. She grimly said after the game that her play was unacceptable.
She made up for it as the Buckeyes raced away in the second half.
With the Buckeyes hanging on to a 30-25 lead at the break, Prahalis helped pick up the pace as they scored in transition, beat the Wildcats back on fastbreaks and stole passes in open court to set up easy baskets.
Ohio State made shots inside and out while piling up 17 of the first 20 points, with Prahalis scoring the final five. She also had four assists during the surge that put the Buckeyes in front 47-28.
“We did a terrible job of attacking them,” McKeown said. “I can’t explain the fact that we allowed them to just run up and down the floor in the second half after we did a great job of controlling the pace in the first half.”
Lavender, who was 12-of-17 from the field, was the recipient of several of the Buckeyes’ 25 assists.
Prahalis’ most eye-popping helper came on a no-look, over-the-head fast-break pass for a basket by Andrea Walker that made it 51-33. Walker was one of four Buckeyes playing their final home game. The seniors have won 106 games, three off the school record.
“We really looked at ourselves at halftime and said, ‘You know, it’s senior night. But we have to get past all this emotion and just play extremely hard and don’t let teams feel like they have a chance so early,'” Lavender said. “We wanted the seniors to go out with a bang so we just had to turn it up a couple of notches.”
Amy Jaeschke had 22 points for Northwestern, which never led but did narrow an early 20-4 deficit to three points before the Buckeyes pulled away — and found themselves.
“We started to guard better and that created the opportunity to get numbers,” Foster said. “We made a couple of 3s and now we become very difficult to guard. We have Jantel inside, Sammy’s ability to get to the basket and shoot mid-range and the wings being able to shoot the 3. There are a lot of dimensions that we brought into play today.”
Ohio State Postgame Quotes
Jim Foster, Ohio State head coach
On the emotions of the game
“I was thinking about a lot of things the first half. But, I think the second half; that’s who we are. Sometimes we forget.”
On the difference between the first and second halves
“We started to guard better and that created the opportunity to get numbers and we made a couple of threes. We become very difficult to guard. You have Jantel inside, Samantha’s ability to get to the basket and get inside and the wings wide being able to shoot the three. There were a lot of dimensions we brought into the game today.”
On how this game sets up the postseason
“We were really happy to play the way we did in the second half. I think we’ve been spending the last two weeks finding out how to play. I think we finally figured it out in the second half. It’s more fun as Sammy alluded to. I have more fun. I look forward to being in the gym with this team with the mentality they had. The fun comes with hard work.”
Samantha Prahalis, sophomore guard
On the game
“I think when we push the ball we’re at our best. It’s just us playing together and getting back to the way we used to play and having fun. I think we were getting a little stiff. We got back to having fun.”
Maria Moeller, senior guard
On playing her last game at Value City Arena
“It was really emotional knowing it was the last game we were ever going to play at the Schott. It might have affected play in the first half.”
On winning a Big Ten Championship each year at Ohio State
“It’s a great feeling for our seniors to go out with a bang. It’s great going out with a legacy and leaving the current players something to build on for the future.”
Jantel Lavender, junior center
On the game
“I think we really looked at ourselves at halftime. We knew it was senior night, but we couldn’t let our defense break down and we wanted our seniors to go out with a bang and finish on top.”
On the second-half performance
“I think the second half is how we need to play the whole game. We need to set the tone defensively. We have more fun when we play like that. We want to have different halftime speeches than we have been having.”
Joe McKeown, Northwestern head coach
On the game
“We played a great first half, but the second half was terrible.”
On whether or not Ohio State played differently this game
“We allowed them to get out and transition and get going. I can’t explain the fact that we allowed them to run up and down the court the second half when we controlled it the first half.”
On what Northwestern will learn from the loss
“We won four of our last six games and have been playing pretty well. I think we have to look at tonight and learn something from it. We won some really big games this year, but to compete at the top of the league you have to play 40 minutes and we have to learn that.”
On Northwestern’s success in the first half
“The pace. When you play Ohio State, you have to make it hard for Lavender to play inside and we did a great job. For us to beat Ohio State it has to be a half-
On Northwestern’s offense
“I felt like we got good shots early and then we got frustrated. The oldest saying in sports says ‘Don’t let your offense dictate your defense,’ but that’s hard to not do. When Samantha Prahalis is given space, she’s going to find people. They have people who can finish and shoot the ball well.”