North Carolina On Tap For Buckeye Women

There is more than one team on Ohio State's campus with four straight Big Ten championships and a national image problem. While the troubles of Jim Tressel's football team are well-chronicled, Jim Foster's women's basketball Buckeyes have also learned a few hard lessons against highly rated competition over the past few seasons.

Despite much success, the Buckeyes seem to have a perception problem.

Casual fans forget victories over Rutgers and Maryland along with a pair of wins over Oklahoma, choosing instead to remember a pair of blowouts at the hands of LSU in consecutive seasons, an NCAA tournament loss to the same Scarlet Knights the Buckeyes had already beaten at home in the 2004-05 regular season and a 24-point loss at Maryland last December.

Consecutive first-round exits from the NCAA tournament have not helped Ohio State win national admirers, either, despite their domination of the conference.

The next chance to earn some respect comes tonight when undefeated North Carolina pays a visit to Value City Arena. The Tar Heels are 8-0 and ranked No. 2 in the nation. They have four double-figure scorers, including preseason national player of the year candidate Rashanda McCants, the younger sister of former Tar Heel star Rashad McCants.

Foster said he expects the 18th-ranked Buckeyes (6-1) to see a fast-breaking team, the kind that has given his team fits in recent seasons but that they are trying to become this year.

Although he and his players downplayed the importance or accuracy or rankings in December, the game represents a measuring stick as they attempt to remake their image from that of a plodding Big Ten dominator to a sleek national title contender against the defending ACC champions.

The contest will also serve as the next test for Samantha Prahalis, Ohio State's freshman point guard who is being counted upon to help guide the team's transition to a fast-breaking, full-court pressing team.

So far, the five-star prospect from just outside New York City has been as good as advertised. She averages 13.7 points and 5.0 assists per game and has done so with some flair missing from the lunch-pale Buckeye attack in recent seasons.

She makes the running game go by pushing the tempo and excels in the half-court offense, able to dish to an open teammate or hit a deep shot (46.7 percent from three-point range so far) when the situation calls for either.

"I think Sammy makes some players better," Foster said. "She gives you the ball where you can maximize your skills and you can use your talents. Maybe we haven't had that. The offense had to execute precisely to create shots for certain players. Now we can be creative without the offense and within the framework of individual skills. I think that's a lot harder to play against. It's a lot harder to guard. It's a lot less predictable. And it just gives us the opportunity to max some of these kids' strengths and attributes."

Still developing her considerable strengths is Jantel Lavender, Ohio State's 6-4 sophomore center who took home at least a share of the first two Big Ten player of week honors this season after being named co-player of the year last year.

She averages 21.7 points per game and 12.1 rebounds, topping the conference in both categories.

On the perimeter, helping Prahalis make teams pay for doubling down on Lavender have been players such as senior Ashlee Trebilcock and sophomores Brittany Johnson and Alison Jackson.

They will likely need all cylinders firing to pull off an upset for their conference in the second annual ACC/Big Ten women's basketball challenge, but they sounded confident yesterday.

Trebilcock, a second-year starter, has been encouraged by the intensity with which the players have practiced recently and views Prahalis as a potential ace in the hole.

"I think a player like Sammy can read holes and stuff that we might not have had offensively from a point guard in the last couple of years," Trebilcock said. "I think she has the ability to drive and find the open person and I think Jantel down low, if we breakdown people she's going to finish, and Britt and I can hit shots so I think there's just a lot of weapons on the floor. Once we get past their initial pressure they'll be OK."

Prahalis and another of her weapons, power forward Star Allen (9.0 points and 7.9 rebounds per game) both professed excitement to be facing one of women's basketball's established national powers, but the freshman had a simple answer for how they should approach the game when the ball goes in the air just after 7 p.m. tonight for the Big Ten Network broadcast.

"We've got to play smart and just play our game," Prahalis said.

It's likely she got that mindset from her coach. Foster, never one to shy away from breaking down an issue to its simplest terms, said no matter the respective ranks of the squads going at each other on the Value City Arena floor, the final result come down to "who does what they do well better on that particular day. We do some things very well. We've got to try to do them more often than not. They do some things pretty well and we've got to figure out how to defend that more often than not."

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