Jantel Lavender sat in for the post-game press conference with all smiles, joking with sophomore guard Tayler Hill and reflecting on the 37 point outburst she put up to upset No. 1 seed MSU.
Extending their winning streak to eight games, the Buckeyes (21-9 overall, 11-6 Big Ten) took a 72-57 win against the Spartans (25-5, 13-4) and Lavender set a new career-high in points. That’s making a statement because Lavender is the career all-time leading scorer at Ohio State and second in the Big Ten record books.
A reporter’s accident summed it up best when questioning Hill.
“How does it feel to play with something like that,” he said before quickly correcting himself to “someone like her.”
But the first title was more fitting. Lavender brought it to junior forward Lykendra Johnson, the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year, on every possession using finesse and power.
She hit layups, jumpers, free throws, you name it and the senior center made it seem as easy as riding a bike. You could call her a machine, a robot, a beast, a freak of nature, whatever you decide, but tonight she wasn’t human.
“She played possessed,” MSU head coach Suzy Merchant said. “She was not going to have it today. “Maybe (with) Lykendra being Defensive Player of the Year, she tried to challenge herself a little bit more … we didn’t have an answer for her.”
After facing and overcoming a 10-point halftime deficit, Johnson tied the game at 51 with a jumper from the free throw line. The Spartans were destroying the Buckeyes on the boards and it seemed like everything was rolling in their favor.
The MSU crowd was electric and unable to contain themselves even on a simple change of possession. The Spartans went on a 12-3 run and had the momentum. Johnson, who had 16 points and 17 rebounds last time against the Buckeyes, added seven of those points, finally finding her groove.
“I had a little pride on the line,” Johnson said. “She had 21 points in the first half. So (I started) playing behind her and basically limiting her touches, trying to do anything and everything.”
But a couple bad plays can completely alter the course of a basketball game, Merchant said.
“We had three straight turnovers, two by Brittney (Thomas) and one by Annalise (Pickrel),” Merchant said. “You just can’t turn them over for touchdowns. Not in these big games, not in the post-season … All they needed was just a little bit of daylight and they kind of broke through the wall.”
The Buckeyes went on an 11-0 run that basically sealed the game. What started as a 4-6 conference record and was looking to be the team’s most disappointing season, the Buckeyes took it all in after the game.
They are headed to the finals to play Penn State for the Big Ten Tournament title.
What started out as a quiet Buckeyes crowd, erupted into chants of “O-H-I-O” even after all the players left the court.
Rowdy MSU fans, who attacked the referees with boos after each of the Spartans 22 fouls, quickly found the nearest exit as if they were suffocating in the sea of red.
The Buckeyes had a 22-11 advantage in foul calls and got to the line 26 times, hitting 22 of their attempts. The Spartans were awarded a trip to the charity stripe 12 times.
Fans were so outraged that when the arena went quiet at the half, one MSU fan asked the halftime performer to referee the game.
Ohio State head coach Jim Foster said it demonstrated his team’s toughness. The Spartans might have a different word for it, but Keane said questioning the officiating is something she wouldn’t consider.
“I’m a competitor, and I know my teammates are competitors, and we’re never going to blame any kind of refereeing or anything like that,” Keane said. “We’re going to go out and play as hard as we can and play within the guidelines of how he game is being played.”
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In the losing effort, Keane led her team with 17 points and Johnson made up for her poor first half with 14 points and 10 rebounds as her final stat line.
For the Buckeyes, junior guard Samantha Prahalis had 11 points.
Although the Spartans dominated the offensive glass with 25 offensive rebounds to the Buckeyes seven, they allowed OSU to make more than half their shots (53 percent).
Keane, the coaches selection for Big Ten Player of the Year, walked off the floor, head down, refusing to give the Buckeyes or their fans the satisfaction of seeing her upset. When you could see her after the game, it was obviously that this one left a scar.
“Losing obviously sucks,” Keane said. “Losing to a team three times in a season sucks even more. But this is motivation for us going into the next week and into this next round of playing for our lives.”
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