After a so-so start, the Buckeyes dropped the hammer in the opening minutes of the second half, and the 5-7, 100-and-some-pound hammer is named Samantha Prahalis.
Ohio State’s freshman point guard put on a show for the 3,677 who showed up at Value City Arena on Thursday night to watch the 14th-ranked Buckeyes clinch their fifth straight Big Ten championship with a 75-53 win over Wisconsin.
For now, they are assured of merely a share of the title, but if Prahalis can dribble circles around Penn State defenders the way she did those from Wisconsin, the game Sunday with the Nittany Lions might be merely a formality.
Do not tell that to the Buckeyes (23-5, 14-3) and head coach Jim Foster, though.
There was no postgame celebration nor even an announcement made over the public address system to acknowledge this Ohio State squad joined the Buckeyes of 1983-87 as the only teams to win or share five straight conference titles. No mention of Ohio State picking up a Big Ten record 12th championship.
Foster said the lack of pomp or circumstance was a result of he and his players feeling there is still business to be done.
“They understand that there is more down the road,” he said. “Celebrate when it’s time to celebrate, and be thankful for what you’ve accomplished when it’s time to. If we want to win the league outright, this wasn’t a time to celebrate tonight. OK, we clinched a share. If we win Sunday, it’s ours by ourselves, so why celebrate the share?”
Jantel Lavender agreed.
“Most definitely. I think both of these games are important. Coming out today with a focus on Wisconsin was really important because we knew they are a hard-fighting team. Our next focus is Penn State. We know they’re looking for a win and we just have to come out and play extremely hard like we did tonight.”
With everything working on offense against the Badgers, they did not have to play extremely hard for long.
Ohio State led 40-29 at the half, an advantage that shrank to nine when Badger Rae Lin D’Alie scored the first basket of the second half with a layup.
Then Prahalis made three straight dazzling open-floor plays that helped turn a close game into a rout.
First she caught a Wisconsin air-ball shot and raced down the floor to set up Lavender for a layup. Lavender also drew a foul on the play and made the ensuing free throw.
Next she penetrated the Wisconsin defense then threw a no-look pass to Lavender for another deuce.
Then she dribbled around and between several Badgers between midcourt and the middle of the lane, where she unleashed another no-look pass, this one outside to a wide-open Brittany Johnson, who buried a three-pointer that prompted Wisconsin head coach Lisa Stone to call timeout with her team trailing 48-33.
That did not help much, though. Prahalis kept coming.
After Allen and Lavender took turns with one more basket apiece in the lane, Prahalis helped fuel another break, taking an outlet pass from Alison Jackson and thrusting it ahead one-handed to Lavender, who finished with a layup give the Buckeyes a 56-35 lead.
There were nearly 12 minutes left to play, but there was no indication the Badgers could stop the Buckeyes.
The only thing that seemed to slow them down was Foster, who brought Prahalis and Lavender to the bench for good with more than nine minutes left to play.
Lavender finished with game-highs of 21 points and 13 rebounds while Prahalis had nine assists.
Both spoke eagerly of their affection for being able to play a game where they could get out and run on an opponent.
“I love to run the floor,” Lavender said with a huge smile. “I love it.”
“I want to run all the time, but when it’s really working, you can feel it and you’re in a flow,” Prahalis said, acknowledging that such a feeling was in the arena Thursday night.
“I love running because we get easy baskets and you get to create a lot more.”
Allen poured in 17 points and Ashlee Trebilcock had 11, including eight during a 16-4 run in the first half that gave the Buckeyes their first breathing room.
Alyssa Karel led Wisconsin (16-13, 6-12) with 13 points to match her season average.
Ohio State concludes the regular season at 4 p.m. Sunday when Penn State visits Value City Arena.
After that, the Buckeyes will head to Indianapolis for the Big Ten tournament. They have already clinched the No. 1 seed and a first-round bye there and will play their first game at 6 p.m. March 6 at Conseco Fieldhouse.