Jan. 15, the Buckeyes were ranked 15th and riding an eight-game winning streak, not to mention 5-0 in the Big Ten and playing on their home floor. It seemed Ohio State might storm through the league again for a sixth straight Big Ten championship.
Then the Golden Gophers beat them into submission, halting the OSU running game, smothering the Buckeye post players and dominating the glass in a 59-56 upset.
Since then, the Buckeyes have fallen out of and climbed back into first place, with ups and downs along the way. They won their next six, though rarely with the swagger with which they had beaten teams before the Minnesota game, then dropped two in a row. Along the way, the offense struggled more often than not, particularly in a 52-46 loss at Michigan State on Feb. 8.
The defense abandoned the Buckeyes in their next contest, an 85-75 loss at Iowa, but there were signs they found their scoring touch with 41 points in the second half at Iowa City.
The last time out, Ohio State pressed and ran past overmatched Northwestern 81-55 last Sunday. They also found their three-point shooting stroke, going 8 for 16 from downtown.
Head coach Jim Foster said yesterday to expect such a defensive attack for the rest of the season from his 20th-ranked Buckeyes, who enter historic Williams Arena tonight with a 20-5 overall record and 11-3 in conference play. Minnesota is just a game back in the standings.
The Buckeyes will look to keep pace with Michigan State, the Big Ten co-leaders who host Michigan tonight, and do so hoping to show they have learned a few things in the halfcourt since the first time they took on the Golden Gophers.
“We’ll have a couple wrinkles and we’ll just be different,” Foster said.
More than anything, he said the key will simply be moving more in their regular sets than they did when the teams met in Columbus.
That evening, center Jantel Lavender and power forward Star Allen combined to attempt just 10 field goals. Worse, Ohio State grabbed just three offensive rebounds collectively.
Foster attributed such numbers to a lack of patience when the Buckeyes were facing a set defense. Insufficient reversing of the ball made the Buckeyes not just easier to defend but also easier to box out, a noted skill of Minnesota’s frontcourt players, who also have no qualm with pushing the rules on contact to their outer limits.
“There are different ways to guard, and when the defense is allowed to have more than two body parts on her, it is very difficult for the offensive player,” Foster said. “And now you want to move the offensive player…”
He trailed off then concluded, “We got into more like a sumo wrestling match than a basketball game.”
While there was a time that kind of game suited Ohio State fine, the latest version of the Buckeye women’s basketball team would prefer to play at a faster pace and is at its best on the run.
The coach and the players both exuded confidence yesterday shortly before departing for Minneapolis.
“I think when they were here we just didn’t play our game,” said Lavender. “I think we were doing a lot of little things to hurt ourselves.
“We only lost the game by three and we played terrible, so I think if we go there and play how we play, we should be fine.”
How they play should include plenty of touches for both Lavender and Allen.
“I just think that the ball going through the post every now and then is a good way to get offense flowing,” Lavender said. “Maybe even get it in and kick it back out and repost just so you can establish some offense because I think inside is one of our best attributes as a team.”
Helping the cause should be the expected return of guard Ashlee Trebilcock, who sat out the contest against the Wildcats to rest a sore right knee.
Trebilcock is a senior leader and the Buckeyes’ best three-point shooter (45.1 percent on the season). Both are traits of which the Ohio State can use all they can get. With a new and improved running game this season plus all-conference performers at both the ‘4’’ and the ‘5’, teams have naturally forced the Buckeyes to beat them from the outside when possible.
“I think they are going to come out and trap the post and sit in the lane because our outside shooting hasn’t been extremely great,” Lavender acknowledged. “That gives teams an incentive to pack the key in and make us make outside shots.”
Defensively, Ohio State should also be able to give the Gophers a different look than the previous meeting. Shavelle Little, the 2008 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, missed the first contest with a sore knee of her own, but she is back and will be looking to make life difficult for Gopher guards Emily Fox and Katie Ohm.
Both are experienced and talented. Fox had seven assists in the first contest while Ohm had 15 points on five three-pointers.
“That’s going to be a major thing, too, for us,” Lavender said of Little’s presence in the lineup.