The Ohio State women’s basketball team will be shooting for its first outright Big Ten championship since the 1985-86 season when it hosts Purdue on Thursday at 8 p.m. at Value City Arena.
The No. 6 Buckeyes (23-2, 13-1 Big Ten) and No. 10 Boilermakers (21-4, 12-2) played on Jan. 1 with host Purdue emerging with a 61-59 victory.
“We’re now a better basketball team and I think they’re a better basketball team,” OSU head coach Jim Foster said. “I don’t think it’s going to be a very similar basketball game.”
Ohio State was 30-5 last season and tied for the Big Ten championship. But winning it outright this year would be something special for the Buckeyes.
“It’s what you play for,” Foster said. “It’s why you’re in the gym. Hopefully it’s what these kids came to school here for. … It would be a nice accomplishment.”
The Boilermakers are led by forwards Katie Gearlds (6-1, Jr.) and Aya Traore (6-1, Sr.) who average 15.4 points and 13.2 points, respectively.
Ohio State center Jessica Davenport (6-5, Jr.) is having another huge season. The reigning Big Ten Player of the Year leads the conference in four major categories: scoring (19.2 points per game), rebounding (8.5 rpg), field goal percentage (.645) and blocked shots (3.04 bpg).
But OSU is far from a one-woman show this season. At least five other players are enjoying productive seasons for the Buckeyes.
Guard Brandie Hoskins (5-9, Jr.) is averaging 12.0 points and 3.4 assists. She is lightning-quick and is one of best penetrators in the country.
Shooting guard Marscilla Packer (5-9, So.) is averaging 11 points and is shooting 48.5 percent from 3-point range (65-134), good for fourth-best in the nation. Her emergence as a long range threat has been a big boost for the team.
Forward Debbie Merrill (6-1, Sr.) is averaging 9.4 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.3 assists. The Cincinnati transfer has been a nice addition and has taken some of the pressure off Davenport down low.
Guard Kim Wilburn (5-6, Sr.) is averaging 5.8 points and 3.3 steals. She now has 353 career steals, which is good for third place all-time in the Big Ten. She trails only Wisconsin’s Tamara Moore (353) and Michigan’s Stacey Thomas (372).
Point guard Ashley Allen (5-9, Sr.) is averaging 4.1 points and 3.6 assists. Modest numbers, but the Buckeyes are 15-0 when she starts at the point. Allen missed the first eight games of the season with an injury.
“We were not as good of a basketball team without Ashley Allen playing point guard,” Foster said.
Ohio State’s players seem confident about the match-up with Purdue.
“It’s exciting because it’s going to determine the Big Ten season,” Packer said. “We’re excited that it’s at our place. We want to go out and get a win (Thursday) and we’re definitely ready for it.”
Added Allen: “These are the games you want to play. It’s going to be a challenge, but we feel pretty good about the way we’ve been playing.”
Foster earned his 600th career victory in OSU’s 69-38 triumph over Michigan State on Monday. Foster is in his 28th year as a college head coach, including stops at St. Joseph’s, Vanderbilt, and OSU.
He reflected on the blowout win over the Spartans.
“I think Michigan State is a very good basketball team and we played exceptionally well,” he said. “We didn’t lose our focus and our intensity was very good the whole game from a defensive perspective.”
The Buckeyes are the No. 1 defensive team in the country, allowing 51.3 points per game. They are also No. 2 in the nation in least amount of fouls (11.9 per game).
“Well, I just think we’re guarding,” Foster said. “We’re communicating and we’re aggressive without fouling. Those two things are good attributes for a defensive team to have.”
Foster and the Buckeyes didn’t set any specific goals entering the season.
“Our philosophy all year is to maximize the day,” Foster said. “When you do that, at the end of a season, stuff takes care of itself. We don’t put 17 goals up on the wall and say this and this and that. As soon as you start to not get them… if we had a bunch of things up on the wall, we might not have hit three of them and no one is thinking the way you need to be thinking. Your goal is to get better today and if you keep doing it, by the end of the year, you have reaped what you have sown.”
Foster was asked if he’s surprised that OSU has not won an outright conference title in 20 years.
“I never dwell (on what happened in the past),” he said. “When I come to some place, other people have the history, mine is narrow. It’s now in its fourth season and I don’t go past that much.
“I will say it’s a lot harder to win this league now because so many teams care and are committed to the game of women’s basketball. I think as an outsider, (years ago), it was just Ohio State and Iowa. In this conference, Purdue was nowhere to be seen in the 80’s and here we are playing for a championship. There’s your history perspective.”
When asked what OSU needs to do well offensively to beat Purdue, Foster said: “I think we just have to establish tempo. There’s a variety of good defensive teams in this league and they play different ways. Purdue is a very good defensive team. Hopefully within the framework of what you do offensively there’s answers for a variety of defensive looks.”
Foster reiterated how far his team has come since the first meeting with the Boilermakers.
“Night and day,” he said. “I just called Ashley Allen in to watch a couple clips from last game and it was obvious the game was Purdue and I said, ‘Who the heck are they playing?’ She looked twice and said, ‘Us.’ And I said, ‘No they’re not.’ I think she got it.
“I would just hope we’re a heck of a lot better than we were Jan. 1. We’ve been in the gym a lot since and Ashley Allen, that was her first game back. She did not start that game. She came off the bench. She had not practiced. She had been on the floor for two days walking through things. Marscilla Packer didn’t start that game. Brandie Hoskins really struggled in that game. We weren’t very good offensively. I looked back at all the things we didn’t do and we lost the game by two points.”
Ohio State is in the midst of a 14-game winning streak, which is tied for the fourth-longest streak in school history. The 1984-85 squad won 20 straight to set the school record.
* The PU-OSU game will be televised live by Comcast SportsNet Chicago.
* The game will also be broadcasted live over the radio and Internet by WOSU 820-AM (www.wosu.org).