How does a women’s basketball team improve on a 22-win, Big Ten championship season? What can Ohio State do to correct the postseason problems that can now be considered a full-blown epidemic?
Buckeye head coach Jim Foster is a deep thinker, but his solution at the dawn of another season was quite simple: Play harder.
Last season the Buckeyes leaned heavily on Big Ten co-player of the year Jantel Lavender, who was the nation’s third-ranked prospect as a high school senior at Cleveland Central Catholic in 2007. With her averaging 17.6 points and 9.9 rebounds per game as a freshman, Ohio State hardly missed graduated three-time All-American and Big Ten player of the year Jessica Davenport at center last season.
With guard Marscilla Packer adding 15.1 points per game from the perimeter, point guard Shavelle Little harassing opposing ball-handlers and forward Tamarah Riley providing timely rebounds and baskets, Ohio State went 22-9 and won at least a share of the Big Ten title for the fourth straight season.
But the campaign ended on a two-game losing streak after a loss in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals to Illinois and an unceremonious dumping from the NCAA tournament by 11th-seeded Florida State.
The Buckeyes fell short of the Big Ten tournament crown despite having the No. 1 seed for the second straight season and lost to a worse-seeded team in the Big Dance for the third year in a row, a source of consternation to program followers but not a fact that seems to keep Foster up at night.
“I really don’t listen to people who talk about things like that,” Foster said Monday. “I listen to people who have an understanding of what it is. We need to be better. I don’t need anyone to tell me that. I’ve got a pretty good handle on that.”
He’s hoping the second year of an infusion of athleticism is the cure to his program’s postseason illness.
Last season, he added highly rated wing players Alison Jackson and Brittany Johnson along with Lavender in the post. A fourth freshman, Sarah Schulze, also brought athleticism and shooting as a forward. Though not a high-profile recruit, Schulze turned out to be the fastest player o the team.
This year the newcomers are guards Samantha Prahalis, a five-star point guard, and Amber Stokes, a three-star combo guard and the daughter of former Buckeye guard Ron Stokes.
Prahalis averaged 30.1 points, 7.7 rebounds and 7.9 assists last season at Commack High School en route to being named the New York Gatorade player of the year and a McDonald’s All-American.
Stokes, a high school track star like Schulze, averaged better than 20 points per game last season for Gahanna-Lincoln in the Columbus suburbs last season.
Renowned for her creativity with the ball, the 5-7 Prahalis might be the key to a very different Ohio State program, one not even resembling the squads of Davenport that won 108 games and three Big Ten titles in four seasons.
That is because Foster sees in Prahalis some of the unique skills possessed by Brandie Hoskins, a point-forward and classmate of Davenport who scored more than 1,400 points and dished out nearly 500 assists in her four years in scarlet and gray.
She was the proverbial straw that stirred the drink when Ohio State opened the 2006-07 season 21-1, rose to No. 4 in the national polls and had victories over such major conference teams as Oklahoma and Boston College.
Since Hoskins went down that season with a torn Achilles tendon, the Buckeyes have lacked playmaking on the offensive end.
Without her that season, Ohio State finished the year 6-3, lost to Purdue in the Big Ten tournament final and as a No. 4 seed fell to No. 13 Marist in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Last year, the more up-tempo attack Foster desired never found its stride because of lack of a pilot, but what he dubbed a transitional year still yielded a conference title and, perhaps more importantly, valuable experience for young athletic players such as Jackson and Johnson.
“I think they’ve learned how to play hard,” Foster said. “That’s an attribute that’s a little more difficult to come by than it used to be. I really think this group as a whole has learned.
“We weren’t as ready,” he said of running more last season. “I wasn’t going to hand anything. You have to earn it, and I think our young players have a learning experience their first year and I think they had a great spring and a great summer and I think they’ve learned how to play harder and what that means.”
Foster cited Lavender’s experience with USA Basketball during the summer of 2007 as a reason she came to school more ready to compete at the college level every night than her classmates, and he hopes Prahalis will benefit from a similar experience this past summer.
“I think the two freshmen coming in this year, much like Jantel, understood it walking in,” he said. “Sammy had that experience that Jantel had, that USA Basketball experience, and I think that’s invaluable.”
Although he cannot work with the players first hand until practice begins this week, he has a good source fostering his belief that his team will have a different look this season.
Katie Smith, Ohio State’s all-time leading scorer, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and the all-time leading scorer in U.S. professional women’s basketball history, is back in town taking classes toward a long-elusive undergraduate degree and played pickup games with the Buckeyes last Saturday morning.
That afternoon after being honored at the Ohio Stadium 50-yard line during halftime of the football team’s 16-3 win over Purdue, the reigning WNBA Finals most valuable player told BuckeyeSports.com she is optimistic her alma mater can post big year.
“I think their returners are great,” she said. “With the point guard, I think they will have them a little bit more up tempo. She’s got nice stuff to her game. Amber Stokes is a competitor who gets out there and works hard, so I look for them to have another successful year.”
She gave Foster a good review as well.
“Katie Smith doesn’t pull punches,” Foster said. “I’ve known her for a long time, and I asked her the other day after she played pick-up with them, ‘What did you think?’ She said, ‘They played hard.’ That’s coming from someone who doesn’t know any other way. That’s like Pavarotti saying they can sing.”