In the midst of the worst stretch in recent program history, the Ohio State women’s basketball team picked up its biggest win in quite some time.
The 24th-ranked Buckeyes knocked off No. 9 Michigan State by a 67-53 final Sunday afternoon in Columbus, ending a two-game losing streak and giving the Spartans their first conference loss.
Ohio State (11-6, 2-3) took a 33-29 lead into the locker room thanks to a surge in defensive energy in the final nine minutes.
The Spartans (16-2, 4-1) fell behind 6-0 early but looked primed to take control of the game when Lykendra Johnson made a pair of free throws to put them ahead 14-13 at the 9:32 mark.
Ohio State went back in front shortly afterward when Tayler Hill went on the attack. She drove through the MSU defense for a layup, drew a foul and completed the old-fashioned three-point play with a free throw.
That touched off a frenetic rest of the half that saw the Buckeyes maintain and extend their lead with tough defense at one end and a combination of Jantel Lavender post moves and driving layups on offense.
Lavender finished the half with 14 points on 5 of 10 shooting from the floor. She made 4 of 6 free throws.
Hill added seven points while point guard Samantha Prahalis had three assists and two steals.
The Buckeyes’ halfcourt offense remained stagnant, but Lavender finished around the rim more consistently than she had been during most of the team’s month-long funk that began in mid-December.
They also benefitted from the quickness and agility of Hill and reserve guard Amber Stokes, who knifed through the Spartans on several occasions to earn layups or trips to the foul line and combined to score 12 points in the opening half.
Ohio State shot only 41.4 percent (12 for 29) in the opening half but held the Spartans to 34.5 percent (10 for 29).
Asked what was different Sunday afternoon compared to the Buckeyes’ play during a stretch that saw them lose six of their previous nine games, Lavender had a simple response.
“We played defense,” the senior center said. “We played really hard on defense and I think we were all on the same page defensively. Offense just came because we pushed tempo. Everybody was playing hard on the ball and we rotated better to help-side than we had been.”
Hill and Johnson both made three-pointers to open the second half, bulging Ohio State’s lead to 10 points for the first time.
That prompted Michigan State head coach Suzy Merchant to call timeout with 17:07 to play and her team trailing 39-29.
The Buckeyes never let the Spartans turn it around.
The visitors cut their deficit to six with back to back baskets by Johnson and Jasmine Thomas, but Ohio State scored 10 of the next 12 points in the game to open up a 16-point advantage.
Hill had five points during the run, including a three-pointer at the conclusion that made it 51-35 with 10:48 remaining in the game.
The closest the Spartans would get was 10 points after a three-point play by Johnson with 1:53 on the clock, but Ohio State did not blink.
The Buckeyes ran down the shot clock until Hill found Prahalis open in a corner. The junior point guard dribbled to eight feet, stopped and banked in a floater to extend the lead back to 12.
After an empty Michigan State possession, Brittany Johnson made a pair of free throws, and the season-high crowd of 7,808 had nothing else to worry about.
Lavender finished with a game-high 24 points while Hill added 17 and Johnson 10. Stokes had seven.
Prahalis had nine points, five assists, seven rebounds and three steals while playing all 40 minutes.
She and fellow guards Stokes, Johnson and Hill all were pests defensively as the Buckeyes flummoxed the Spartans with a mix of man-to-man and box-and-one.
Michigan State struggled even more in the second half, shooting a collective 10 for 40 (25.0 percent). For the game, the Spartans check in at 29.0 percent on 20 for 69.
Ohio State made 22 of 51 field goals (43.1 percent), including 4 of 10 three-pointers, both marked improvements from losses at Iowa and Northwestern in their two previous times out.
“The difference is we made shots,” Ohio State head coach Jim Foster said. “The two hardest things to do in basketball are to defend someone off the dribble and transition defense. If you’re not making shots you’re in transition defense a lot. When you’re making shots, your defense is set and you can be much more aggressive.”
The only Spartan to score in double figures was forward Cetera Washington, who had 12 points and nine rebounds.
Ohio State, the six-time defending Big Ten champions, entered the game in 10th place in the conference standings and at risk of falling four games behind the front-running Spartans.
Instead, they picked up their first win over a top 10 team since Dec. 20, 2006, when the ninth-ranked Buckeyes knocked off No. 3 Oklahoma in Norman.
“I knew we were walking into a hornets’ next,” Merchant said. “I felt it was a must-win for them. That’s a very talented team.”
The one glaring negative of the day for Ohio State was a knee injury to starting forward Sarah Schulze.
The senior ended up on the floor holding her knee after a struggle for a rebound under the Ohio State basket. Play was stopped at the 15:08 mark, and two members of the Ohio State training staff helped her to the locker room as she was unable to put any weight on her right leg.
She did not return to the game, and Foster said that while there was no official update, he was not optimistic about the eventual prognosis.
Senior Alison Jackson started the second half in her place and ended the day with seven rebounds and two assists in 30 minutes.